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Future of Pieter-Steph still unclear in muddy transfer waters

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
By Craig Ray
20 May 2020 0

The curious case of Pieter-Steph du Toit and whether he will stay at Western Province Rugby hasn’t been finalised officially. This despite the fact that the 21-day window for players to cancel existing contracts at their clubs in South Africa and take up other offers at an overseas club expired last Friday morning.

A Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) agreed by the rugby industry relating to pay cuts across the board to help mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, built in a small window for those that were unhappy with losing income to seek alternative employment.

Overall South Africa’s 717 registered professional players, through salary reductions, will contribute 13% of R1.2-billion the rugby industry is trying to slash off its books because of suspended tournaments, tours and competitions due to coronavirus.

Du Toit, the current World Player of the Year, terminated his contract hours before the transfer deadline last Thursday. His agent Gerrie Swart told Daily Maverick that Du Toit would remain at WP, and that the cancellation of the existing contract was a formality because WP were set to issue him with a new contract, with new terms.

The desired new terms appear to be over separating Du Toit’s image rights, which he wants unbundled, from a collective rights agreement. How this could be done is unclear because South Africa’s players are all subject to a collective image rights agreement, held by MyPlayers. The trade union receives R90-million annually from SA Rugby for those image rights, R30-million of which goes to insurance while the other R60-million is paid to players. If Du Toit’s rights are unbundled, it would set a precedent that other players might try to follow.

The Du Toit camp’s plan is to allow the big flank to represent individual companies to use his image rights to supplement his income. For that to happen WP needed to issue Du Toit a new contract. On deadline day, the union apparently offered an addendum to his existing contract, which was not acceptable to Du Toit’s representatives. As a result, he terminated his contract. Technically, without a formal offer from a foreign club, that was not allowed.

That raises some issues of its own. Under the rules of the CBA, no new contracts were allowed to be negotiated in local rugby. Secondly, existing contracts were not allowed to be renegotiated and thirdly, only those with offers from foreign clubs could terminate their existing contracts.

Sources have told Daily Maverick that Du Toit’s decision to seek better contractual terms has also upset his Stormers teammates, who are all taking pay cuts.

Du Toit’s intentions might genuinely be coming from a place of perceived loyalty – that he wants to stay in South Africa and play in Cape Town, until after the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour. What has happened though, is that he appears greedy at a time when others are losing income.

It has been widely reported that Du Toit had several lucrative offers from French clubs, although that has not been corroborated by the player or his agent. If Du Toit had an offer in the 21-day window, very few would have criticised him for taking it. The World Player of the Year, who has given so much to the Stormers and the Springboks, would be waved off with best wishes by everybody. Now he comes across as putting himself above the collective at a difficult time.

On another level though, this also appears to be some bad business by WP Rugby. The club is currently without a chief executive and there appears to be a real leadership vacuum. There is no official director of rugby either, leaving players without a chain of command to turn to when it comes to their contracts. 

Stormers coach John Dobson’s mandate should not extend to contract talks with the players. He might have input and use his relationship to influence or advise players, but when it comes to the nitty gritty of contract negotiations that should be done by the director of rugby, CEO and player agents.

WP issued a statement on Saturday acknowledging that Du Toit, as well as flank Cobus Wiese and flyhalf Jean-Luc du Plessis had terminated their contracts. In the statement the union said: “The existing contracts between the players and the Company are considered as binding and WP Rugby has reserved the right to hold players to these contracts or exercise other rights that may be held.”

This is unusual as it either suggests that Wiese and Du Plessis somehow breached the terms of the CBA by terminating without other offers. Or WP are refusing to accept the players’ resignations and issue them with clearances. If that is the case, then WP is in breach of the collective position.

It appears to be the latter position. Another source revealed to Daily Maverick that the situation has now reached the point where: “it is the industry versus WP because they cannot pick and choose which clauses of the CBA they want to follow. There is going to be a big fight.”

WP Rugby, the professional arm of the union, holds players’ contracts. The Western Province Rugby Football Union (WPRFU), which wholly owns the company, signed the CBA. Daily Maverick understands that a loophole through which WP Rugby are trying to block these moves is that the company did not sign the CBA. That stance is likely to be tested in the coming days.

Under the CBA, players earning under R240,000 per annum won’t suffer any pay cuts, but those at the top end of the spectrum – earning over R2 million a year – will effectively lose 25% of their salary after pension fund relief is factored in.

For most players, there was an understanding that with all competitions suspended, funds in rugby will dry up. Broadcast and sponsorship rights are paid in return for matches and competitions being played. Currently that isn’t happening. While most sponsors are sticking with the clubs for now, there will come a time when they have to rethink their contributions when they are receiving no ‘product’ in return.

As a pre-emptive strike SA Rugby along with all its stakeholders delivered a detailed pay reduction model that went through all its partners, which included all the unions and MyPlayers.

A vital concession was that a 21-day window be inserted into the CBA allowing players the opportunity to seek alternative employment. There were two provisos – they could not transfer between clubs in South Africa. They could only terminate their existing contracts by moving to a foreign club.

The second was that if they were unhappy and wanted to terminate their contracts without an offer from a foreign club, they could do so, but would have to sit out playing rugby for the duration of the CBA, which ends on 31 December, 2020.

The choice was simple – stay and take a pay cut, go overseas if you could find someone to hire you, or sit out of rugby for the next six months without pay and pursue another career.

It might sound harsh but under the circumstances it was reasonable considering the unprecedented global situation. Most players accepted it and inevitably some sought a way out.

So far only one super star has moved – Lions hooker Malcolm Marx – who has taken up an offer in Japan. Several other Lions players such as Tyrone Green and Ruan Steenkamp also jumped ship. Two WP Boks – Dillyn Leyds and Wilco Louw – also took up overseas offers. In total there were only 14 transfers out while eight players came in from overseas.

South African rugby only lost one per cent of its players in the transfer window although the immediate future of Pieter-Steph du Toit – the second biggest name in the local game after Bok captain Siya Kolisi – remains as clear as mud. DM

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