They say money talks and the South African Rugby Union’s club rugby department will be spending more than R3 million on transport alone for the Cell C Community Cup that was launched in Sandton on Wednesday. The custodians of the game in this country are shouting from the rooftops their commitment to rejuvenating grassroots rugby, writes KEN BORLAND.
The seven-week-long tournament features the best non-university clubs (universities already have the Varsity Cup) from each of the 14 provinces and Limpopo, and five wild-card invitees, and will run with pool play from 16 February through to 16 March.
The tournament has been divided into four pools of five teams each, and the top two from each pool after the round-robin stage will go through to the Easter Playoffs in George from 28 March to 1 April.
The pools have been randomly drawn and will not be on a regional basis and this is what gives the tournament its charm and national feel. It also explains why the South African Rugby Union (Saru) has had to put its money where its mouth is.
The 20 teams will cover a combined distance of 62,300km during the pool stages, an average return journey of 1,550km for each of the 40 matches to be played. White River, the Mpumalanga champions, get an early taste of the road trip feeling when they travel from the Lowveld to Boland to take on Roses United in Wellington in the opening round.
Duane Heath is Saru’s project manager for club rugby and he has spent the last couple of years travelling around the country, from Cape Town to Polokwane, to places like Bethlehem, Springbok, East London and Richard’s Bay, doing a thorough audit of the situation at grassroots level and consulting with these struggling open clubs.
“It was important to get buy-in from all the provinces and every little town I visited was like another piece of the puzzle. People have been talking about reviving club rugby for many years, but we needed to see what everyone wanted.
“I was in Potchefstroom for a sub-union competition when the Lowveld manager came to me and said they were tired of playing against the same old teams and how nice it would be to take on sides from down south.
“That’s why we came up with four national pools and not regional ones, even though it costs more. It’s going to allow different cultures and communities to meet. We’ll see intriguing clashes like African Bombers against Pretoria Police. We could also be creating derbies like between the mining clubs – Sishen versus Rustenburg Impala. And there will be different pools and teams every year, so there is none of that sameness that SuperRugby sometimes suffers from,” Heath said.
Club rugby is the lifeblood of the sport in South Africa, because there is such a wealth of talent and many potential stars don’t play Craven Week and therefore don’t get picked up by the scouts from the various franchises. The late developers are the main beneficiaries from the Community Cup because they now have a televised stage on which to shine.
Gary Teichmann was one of the great Springbok captains, but if he had been born 10 years later, he would have turned 18 at the dawn of professionalism in 1995 and would have become one of the lost talents.
While studying at Cedara Agricultural College, the eighthman and late developer played for Natal University and was finally spotted by Natal coach Ian McIntosh aged 24 in 1991.
The rest is history, as they say, but Nico Luus, the Pretoria Police captain and 35-year-old veteran of more than 100 first-class games for the Valke, says the talent at club level is still being left untapped.
“There are a lot of players good enough to play SuperRugby, they just need to show their talents. A lot of players nowadays go straight from Craven Week to provincial rugby, but they haven’t developed the mental strength and that’s why they get lost. You need to play with older guys, guys who have played provincial rugby before and are now giving back to their clubs,” Luus said.
While one of the main focuses of the Community Cup will be uncovering new talent, it is also about catering for those who love playing rugby but who do not want to become professionals and, for them, the tournament provides the thrill of high-level competition, a chance to travel and play all around South Africa and even appear on TV.
Chris Micklewood, the captain of the all-conquering College Rovers side that last year claimed their 79th win in 83 matches to become national club champions, is a case in point. The Westville utility back played for SA Schools in 2005 before enjoying professional stints with Brive and the Newcastle Falcons.
“Being a professional rugby player actually doesn’t appeal to me and I wasn’t that committed to playing full time. After spending three years playing for Newcastle Falcons, I was looking for a semi-pro platform, somewhere where I could follow my profession [marketing] and play.
“That’s what’s important about the Community Cup, it really allows one to work and play at a good level. I’m so excited about it,” Micklewood said.
The platteland has always been the main supplier of Springboks and young men in those regions can now get noticed before being signed up by one of the big metropolitan unions.
“The Community Cup creates an aspirational pathway for players to show their talents. Clubs have always been the feeders of our provincial and Springbok teams and this tournament creates the platform for them to take it to the next level,” Saru CEO Jurie Roux said.
One of the most famous Cinderella stories in South African rugby is Griqualand West’s 1970 Currie Cup triumph, with several players drawn from the Ammasol mine in Barkly West.
It was in a similarly remote corner of the Northern Cape that Heath came face-to-face with the pride and passion that exists in club rugby.
“It was past Upington, a little mining town called Olifantshoek. This rugby club in the middle of nowhere was run by a father and his son and the clubhouse was dilapidated and vandalised. But they were determined to keep their club alive, even though the young son had a heart condition.
“It was really emotional seeing them posing proudly in front of their run-down clubhouse… it was their pride and joy. If it wasn’t for their club, they’d have nothing,” Heath said.
The same story can probably be told all over the country and the Community Cup will give the heart and soul of rugby in South Africa the proper place it deserves. DM
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine