Rugby’s difficult relationship with talent and money


Rugby’s difficult relationship with talent and money

Rugby was always the half-prudish Victorian auntie of sport. But when the auntie started playing for money, she soon found a busy pavement to stand on and lift her miniskirt to oncoming traffic, writes LOUIS DE VILLIERS.


HOW do we know Marco Masotti, owner of the Sharks rugby team, never played sports games in Career Mode on a PlayStation?

He would have been much poorer for the waste of time, but not only that.

The first thing you do when you're a PlayStation rookie in a sports game's Career Mode is to kick out all the mediocre losers from your club and spend the credits on a handful of superstars.

Then the following happens: you initially crush every team that stands in your path, but those games lead to injuries and undermine motivation and about halfway through your season, three-quarters of those elite players are either virtually injured or virtually sick of you.

So, suppose you choose Bayern Munich to get to grips with FIFA98.

Great choice, because they dominate the Bundesliga year after year and not even Borussia Dortmund can stop you with all your virtual stars. You press those buttons joyfully, without much pressure.

But halfway through your first virtual PS season (i.e. about three relatively sleepless nights later) you start to fall against such shining lights as Energie Cottbus and Erzgebirge Aue, thanks to all the injuries and gatvolheid.

Then you start over and repeat the same mistake. But the next time you press reset, you don't do it again.

All this happened to this guy I know. He's much, much poorer than Masotti, but if the latter continues to run a real rugby team like a PlayStation rookie, they might still live near each other one day.

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In rugby with real people, it is more difficult and the Sharks don't have a reset button, although these days I sometimes wish they did because the Durbanites are close to my heart.

It's one thing to waste fictitious money on virtual players but Masotti wanted to recruit real, living superstars.

The problem is, among other things, that the value of the rand is not fictitious; it's a nasty reality, so South African teams don't have the money to attract the best players from around the world. 

If they did, the Currie Cup might have been strong and the Springboks might have been rotten, because overseas players would have kept our best youngsters out of the team, just as good South African players did to the best youngsters in France, Japan and England.

Those good overseas Boks earn excellent money, learn new things and form a deadly foundation for the youngsters that come through locally in their absence. Then those rising stars eventually earn fortunes in yen, euros and pounds and make room for another new crop of youngsters to come through in their absence.

This conveyor belt works well, and in Europe we learn all the smart/dirty tricks in the world, rugby-wise a better and more rewarding deal than being punching bags for the Kiwis 11 time zones east and helping them improve in the process.


The sums are not that difficult in the rugby world.

International superstars cost you R10 million-plus for a season; the South African unions may spend R85 million on player salaries this season. That's R14 million more than last season, but on Monday night R14 million was equal to £590,000, €689,000 and ¥110 million and OK, that last one is screwing up my argument a bit, but for R200 you can buy delicious sushi in Tokyo.

And for the price of one superstar, five damn good rugby players in South Africa.

However, all those overseas brasse have more money than our beggars on the periphery of the decaying empire.

Last weekend's United Rugby Championship (URC) match between the Bulls and the Sharks at Loftus thoroughly underlined that it is a better idea to build squad depth than to blow your money on a handful of marquee players, especially considering long-term injuries such as that of Bongi Mbonambi.

The Bulls blew the poor Durbanites off the field, so much so that I half-reluctantly sat and clapped my hands from the start.

Afterwards, Sharks coach John Plumtree had quite the chutzpah to complain that his returning Springboks were rusty. As far as my fairly sympathetic eyes could see, they were more or less the only ones who  knew what to do.

There are few provincial or club teams that have as many world-class players as the Sharks. Nche. Mbonambi. Etzebeth. Mapimpi. Am… But it doesn't really help if Mbonambi is out for the season and his replacements still have a lot to learn, or if nobody inside Am shows the faintest understanding of or desire for defence.

Or if Plumtree leave Nche on the reserve bench to help the formidable Wilco Louw lay a platform and a half.

Rusty? On the field, his coaching looks more and more like that.


If you put seven world-class and 18 No Name Brand players in one team and 23 hardworking, above-average players in another, the latter will almost always win.

The right coach will probably in any case make prestigious players of seven or eight of them, as John Dobson does ceaselessly in the Cape.

Jake White can also take five — even if he complains so naggingly that a man's nerves start to become sensitive — but so far this season the Bulls are definitely bellowing harder than the rest of the Azanians; he's built a formidable pack for a sixpence and now has iron men as wings and full back.

If you can't get something out of young players, undervalued players and homesick or returning veterans, you're going to struggle to put a competitive regional team on the field. The Bulls and the Stormers have now pretty much got it under control.

In 2025, South African teams finally start to share in the broadcasting rights of the URC and European Champions Cup. Gentlemen, then there will be a lot of money to pull through your backsides again.


Rugby and money still don't get along well.

Rugby was always the half-prudish Victorian aunt of sport, but when the aunt started playing for money she soon found a busy sidewalk to play on. Standing and lifting her miniskirt for oncoming traffic, auntie is still struggling to realise that less is more.

English club rugby, for example, is in a chaotic state. Last year, Worcester, Wasps and London Irish went bankrupt; the Premier League had to be reduced by necessity.

Most clubs there suffer an annual loss; Saracens were nearly £5 million in the red last year alone. Bath were one of the most prosperous with a loss of £100,000.

So what now?

Of course: buy yourself out of a pinch. Bath have just spent £1 million on Scottish flyhalf Finn Russell and at the time of writing about £500,000 on our RG Snyman.

Two brilliant players. Will check them out anytime.

But turning a £100,000 loss into profit by risking £1.5 million a season on the health of two players is not going to work. In the next decade, all these clubs are going to be like a house of cards falling. If not, I might as well buy a Ferrari on credit. Though I'm probably too zef for a Ferrari; rather a Ford Mustang.


The theme for our tunes this weekend? Songs from countries where many of our most beloved players excel, earning well-deserved accolades for one day:

England (for now):

Japan's music usually doesn't work for me unless it's terribly soft or terribly loud. I think most of the older Springboks should go there to play rugby and stay healthy for the Tests.

Please don't turn this on in the office unless you are the boss or have headphones on:

♦ VWB ♦

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