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Currie Cup under threat as arbitration ruling enshrines a collective off-season for SA rugby players

Currie Cup under threat as arbitration ruling enshrines a collective off-season for SA rugby players
The Cheetahs celebrate after the 2023 Currie Cup final against the Pumas in Bloemfontein. (Photo: Johan Pretorius / Gallo Images)

The 2024 Currie Cup may have to be postponed or cancelled altogether after an arbitration ruling this week.

An arbitrator has ruled that professional South African rugby players, playing for a local province, are entitled to an eight-week rest period that “must occur at the same time”.

He also ruled that there was not a contractual requirement that the rest period must start no later than 12 months from the start of the previous rest period.

While this outcome of a dispute between the South African Rugby Players’ Association (Sarpa) and the South African Rugby Union (Saru) and the South African Rugby Employers Organisation (Sareo) might seem oblique to people outside the industry, it will have a significant impact on competitions — particularly the Currie Cup. 

Saru will now have to allow all provincial players to enjoy their rest period, in other words, their off-season, at the same time, and in one designated window. 

It is a massive outcome because Saru either has to postpone the 2024 Currie Cup, set to be played between July and September, or find another solution for an off-season.

This outcome excludes players who will feature for the Springboks in July and August. They have had their eight weeks’ mandated rest during a defined January and February window.

Important negotiations and calm heads will be required in the coming days and weeks to find a creative solution to save this year’s Currie Cup. 

Since South African rugby collectively decided to align itself with the Northern Hemisphere through participation in the United Rugby Championship (URC) and European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) competitions, the issue of player welfare and an off-season has been a thorny topic. 

To add to the complexity, Saru’s URC competition agreement compels it to deliver four teams for the duration of the tournament, so clearly the rest period cannot happen in those 10 months.

By the process of elimination that leaves only the July and August window, which clashes directly with the Currie Cup.

Currie Cup

Sharks captain Gary Teichmann holds the Currie Cup after his side beat Western Province 25-17 in the 1995 final in Durban. (Photo: © Tertius Pickard / Gallo Images)

Simultaneous rest 

It is important to underline that the draft award has made it clear that all players must have a rest period at the same time. The second ruling, that a rest period “must start no later than 12 months from the start of the previous rest period”, is moot.

The major outcome is that an annual rest period is enshrined in the collective agreement and that it must happen for all provinces simultaneously. 

Think of it as the old December-January off-season when SA competed in Super Rugby. 

The outcome makes it impossible to hold a competition at a time when players are in their “off-season”, whenever that might be. 

South Africa’s four URC participants — the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers — are involved in that competition for 10 out of 12 months and only have the July and August window to give players a rest period. 

Therefore, if the rest period is applied in July and August as Sarpa interpreted the collective agreement to mean, and which became the source of the arbitration, then the Currie Cup cannot go ahead in that period. 

Saru and Sareo interpreted the collective agreement differently. They believed that unions could rest players at any time, as long as they received their mandatory eight-week rest. (This includes return-to-play protocols and a pre-season. There are only 15 working days of leave.) 

That was rejected by the arbitrator. 

This arbitration outcome makes it clear that an ad hoc approach to the rest period is in breach of the collective agreement that was updated in March this year and runs until 31 December 2025.

“It is difficult to see how the granting of the 15-day consecutive leave period at times determined independently by the individual provinces and/or in respect of individual players or teams, could be practically and sensibly implemented,” arbitrator Iain Bremridge SC noted in his 37-page draft award. 

“Any number of difficulties may arise. 

“A decision by an individual province or certain provinces to rest a team or teams at a particular time on the basis of what they consider appropriate given the scheduling of Saru competitions, but which conflicts with the approach of the other provinces, has the potential to disrupt a competition or competition scheduling in a manner prejudicial to Saru’s interests.” 

Problematic situation 

The Currie Cup’s place in the SA rugby landscape has become increasingly problematic. Unlike teams in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy which contest only the URC and EPCR, and don’t have a domestic competition, Saru still wants to deliver the Currie Cup. 

There is fan and commercial demand for the oldest provincial rugby tournament in the world to continue, but there is increasingly no space in the calendar for it to happen. 

For Saru, the Currie Cup still holds huge commercial importance, in addition to heritage value. It’s understood the Currie Cup has sponsorship of R26-million for the 2024 edition, while SuperSport also pays for the rights to broadcast it. 

From that viewpoint, it makes good sense to continue. But for the four major unions, who each contract about 57 senior professional players, there is decreasing value, especially when weighed up against URC and EPCR demands. 

The Currie Cup formed the genesis of the dispute brought by Sarpa after it bumped heads with Saru over the scheduled dates for the competition. 

The national governing body argued that there was no other time slot to hold the Currie Cup and that there were commercial necessities such as the sale of lucrative television rights to consider.

Sarpa was sympathetic to Saru’s concerns over the Currie Cup and the financial reality of playing the tournament, but was duty-bound to its members (all professional men’s players in this instance) to comply with the provisions of the collective agreement over the understanding of rest periods. 

The collective agreement is very clear on issues of player welfare. Players are allowed to play a maximum of 32 games a year and a maximum of 2,400 minutes of activity in any 12-month period, in addition to the stipulated rest period. 

Currie Cup

The late Gerbrand Grobler, Francois Pienaar, Uli Schmidt with the Currie Cup after Tansvaal beat Free State 56-33 in the 1994 final. (Photo: Wessel Oosthuizen / Gallo Images)

No progress 

When no progress was made in April talks between the parties over the interpretation of rest periods, Sarpa declared a dispute with Saru and Sareo and an arbitration hearing followed. 

Bremridge heard testimony from various stakeholders, including MyPlayers’ (which represents Sarpa) chief executive Eugene Henning, Sareo CEO Barend van Graan and Saru CEO Rian Oberholzer. 

Bremridge, in his draft award, dismissed commercial considerations around the staging of the Currie Cup as relevant to the case. 

“The dispute concerns the timing and scheduling of what is described as the ‘rest period’, which is comprised of the 15 consecutive days leave entitlement provided for in clause 64.4 and the two ‘reintegration periods’, the draft award reads. 

“The fact that this interpretation may give rise to scheduling difficulties in consequence of subsequent events, such as broadcasters’ or sponsors’ demands in relation to the scheduling of the Currie Cup competition, is not a relevant consideration in this regard.”

When SA Rugby moved north, with the blessing and unanimous agreement of all its member unions, the landscape changed forever.

Effectively, SA Rugby’s entry into the URC and EPCR sold the eight weeks open in the calendar to those competitions. It took away space for the Currie Cup to be played in its own designated window.

And now the law has confirmed it. DM

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