Sport

Friday drama: Boks’ July Tests called off and top players in scramble to exit  

By Craig Ray 15 May 2020

Pieter-Steph du Toit and Vaea Fifita square up to each other during New Zealand's 16-16 Rugby Championship draw with South Africa on Saturday at Wellington's Westpac Stadium, 27 July, 2019. (Photo: John Cowpland)

On a dramatic day for South African rugby, the Springboks’ July Tests were postponed and several big-name players announced they were leaving the country.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic continued to dish out suffering to sports bodies across the world as World Rugby announced on Friday that July’s Test window had been shut. No Tests will take place over the three weekends when northern hemisphere’s best teams traditionally tour the southern hemisphere.

Friday also marked the end of a 21-day window for South African players to exercise an escape clause written into the industry’s collective bargaining agreement relating to pay cuts, which was finalised last month.

With the rugby industry set to lose R1-billion if no matches can be played for the rest of the year, the players’ trade union MyPlayers received a mandate to enter into collective bargaining for all 717 members.

One of the conditions of the agreement was the insertion of a 21-day clause to allow players who could find alternative employment the chance to seek it.

Thursday night saw mad scrambling in the South African rugby arena as agents tried desperately to shift marquee players on to more lucrative contracts with clubs in Europe and Japan.

One of the big names still negotiating is current World Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit. The Stormers flank is currently injured but has been courted by interested clubs in France. Du Toit though, wants to stay in South Africa until the 2021 British & Irish Lions series.

Sources said Du Toit would move to France to take up a massive three-year, R75-million contract, but the player’s agent, Gerrie Swart, denied that his client was moving.

“Pieter-Steph is staying at Western Province; there is just some paperwork to finalise and there may be one or two sticking points there,” Swart told Daily Maverick.

Du Toit’s existing contract with the union has been cancelled and he is still waiting for a new contract with several allowances that will give him more scope to supplement his income from other commercial ventures. Although the official position is that Du Toit remains with Western Province Rugby (WPR) and the Stormers, the situation is fluid and, if he doesn’t receive the agreed new terms, he will leave.

Otere Black of the Blues (L) tackles Pieter-Steph du Toit of the Stormers (R) during the Super Rugby match between the Stormers of South Africa and the Blues of New Zealand at Newlands Stadium in Cape Town, South Africa, 29 February 2020. EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA

WPR were set to announce that flank Cobus Wiese and flyhalf Jean-Luc du Plessis were leaving on Friday but the leadership was locked in a boardroom meeting over whether to pull out of the collective bargaining agreement or not.

The beleaguered union has not replaced chief executive Paul Zacks after he resigned earlier this year. President Zelt Marais has assumed more power at the union and is facing anger from his own board after signing off on a collective bargaining agreement for industry salary cuts that included the 21-day transfer window. That clause worried all unions because, in theory, all their players could have left.

The reality was that it would never happen, but the consequence is that WPR have lost some players. The WPR board now wants to extricate itself from the agreement as it feels Marais didn’t have a proper mandate to sign off on the collective bargaining agreement. But it’s way too late for that.

“There was an agreement agreed in principle by all parties on 23 April and on 30 April the agreement was finalised. WPR came back at the last minute and wanted to push back on the 21-day clause, but they were told it was too late,” a source close to the negotiations told Daily Maverick.

“WPR threatened to resign but, even if they did, they would still be bound by the terms of the agreement for at least the next three months. The WP Rugby Football Union, which owns WPR, signed in agreement with the full terms of the collective bargaining contract. The WPR company directors were angry that they had not been properly consulted before a signature was put to the document.”

That has led to unhappiness at boardroom level at Newlands with Marais needing to answer to his board.

In Johannesburg, the Lions confirmed that Springbok hooker and former World Player of the Year finalist Malcolm Marx was leaving the franchise to pursue his career in Japan. Four other Lions players, including Junior Springbok wing Tyrone Green, have also left the union. Green is expected to sign for English club Harlequins.

France’s Guilhem Guirado (R) is tackled by South Africa’s Malcolm Marx (L) as he scores a try during the international Rugby match between France and South Africa at the Stade de France stadium in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, France, 10 November 2018. EPA-EFE/YOAN VALAT

Marx, who had only just arrived back in South Africa from Japan following travel bans due to the pandemic, will shortly return to Asia.

In Durban, Bok World Cup heroes Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi both pledged their immediate futures to the Sharks despite some interest from overseas. Mapimpi was made a lucrative offer, which he finally turned down, although the club did lose lock Tyler Paul to a Japanese club.

 

Tests postponed

The Springboks, winners of Rugby World Cup 2019, were due to have their first outings as world champions against Georgia and Scotland in July. Those matches have been postponed to an unspecified date.

The Boks were scheduled to play Scotland in a two-game home Test series in Cape Town (on 4 July at Newlands) and Durban (11 July at Kings Park), while the first-ever match between the Boks and Georgia on South African soil was pencilled in for Port Elizabeth (18 July at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium).

The remainder of the 2020 international calendar will be evaluated in line with return-to-play protocols from various countries, but it looks increasingly unlikely that there will be any Test rugby this year.

All decision-making about returning to play will be based on national government travel, quarantine and health advice, and on all-important player welfare and hosting considerations in line with return-to-rugby guidance recently published by World Rugby.

“Any solution will have player health, welfare and appropriate return-to-play protocols at heart,” said Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby. “It would be inappropriate to comment on potential solutions during a fluid and important consultation process.

 

SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

“From the moment we went into lockdown we have been preparing and workshopping internal guidelines and protocols for return to play and return to work,” said Roux.

“Those are complete and are ready to be actioned as soon as we get government’s go-ahead. We have presented our case to the Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture and believe we have a strong case.

“We do not run hospitals or build ventilators and we are not an industry that is critical to the South African economy; but we do believe that we add huge value to national life in other ways.

“The sight of the Springboks running out for the first time since winning the Rugby World Cup would be a powerful milestone on the nation’s journey to the other side of this crisis, as well as being a boost for national morale.

“A return to play of our provincial teams – even if it is behind closed doors – would similarly be hugely beneficial to a nation in lockdown. We understand that there are bigger agendas at play, but believe the risk of transmission could be well managed by our protocols. We trust the minister and the government will view our case seriously.”

 

Rugby industry pay cuts finalised

Rugby industry stakeholders on Friday confirmed pay cuts and other economies would probably slash R1.2-billion from the sport’s budget by the end of the year.

The economies will be achieved by reduced expenditure following the cancellation of competitions (49.7% of savings), cuts in other operational budgets (37.3%) and in salary reductions (13%).

The plan was formulated and agreed by bodies representing SA Rugby, MyPlayers, Sport Employees’ Unite (an employees’ trade union) and the South African Rugby Employers’ Organisation (Sareo – representing the provincial unions).

The salary cuts amount to 25% of total remuneration across the industry, including all employees, players and officials, although staff earning below R20,000 per month are exempt. Higher earners have agreed to cuts on a sliding scale of up to 43%.

“It was a complex process to find alignment with a number of entities representing 1,396 people in the South African rugby industry, but throughout everyone collaborated fully,” said SA Rugby’s Roux.

“The group identified our collective areas of financial risk and what savings had to be made and then identified a plan to mitigate those risks.

“It has meant salary cuts for many, but we have put together a plan that will ensure the industry will be positioned and resourced to get straight back to action just as soon as we are permitted.” DM

 

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