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Currie Cup to go ahead after ground-breaking welfare pact with players’ union over resting protocols

Currie Cup to go ahead after ground-breaking welfare pact with players’ union over resting protocols
Cheetahs celebrating during the Currie Cup Premier Division final match between Toyota Cheetahs and Airlink Pumas at Toyota Stadium on 24 June 2023 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. (Photo: Johan Pretorius / Gallo Images)

The 2024 Currie Cup will kick off as scheduled, in terms of a ground-breaking alignment between employers and players to maximise player welfare.

It probably shouldn’t have come to an arbitration hearing and the potential cancellation of South Africa’s most cherished rugby competition, but good sense has prevailed.

The 2024 Currie Cup will go ahead as scheduled from 5 July through to 21 September after a new deal was agreed between the MyPlayers and the South African Rugby Employers’ Organisation (Sareo) to accommodate individual rest periods for players.

It’s a welcome outcome to a tricky situation because SA rugby players are inextricably tied to 12-month seasons since aligning with the Northern Hemisphere.

A non-stop season could not continue indefinitely, and, eventually, MyPlayers, through its umbrella body the South African Rugby Players’ Association (Sarpa), declared a dispute with Sareo and the South African Rugby Union (Saru) about a fixed rest period.

In a favourable outcome for MyPlayers, an arbitrator ruled that professional SA rugby players, playing for a home province, are entitled to an eight-week rest period that “must occur at the same time”.

The only eight-week period open was July and August, meaning the 2024 Currie Cup could not go ahead.

Cheetahs celebrating during the Currie Cup Premier Division final match between Toyota Cheetahs and Airlink Pumas at Toyota Stadium on 24 June 2023 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. (Photo: Johan Pretorius / Gallo Images)

Good dialogue

But thanks to reasonable dialogue between all three parties, Saru and Sareo have agreed to vital concessions in the collective agreement with MyPlayers that will enshrine players’ rights to an eight-week off-season every 12 months.

The major concession by MyPlayers to the arbitrator’s ruling is that the rest period will be tailored individually. They could have dug in and insisted on a blanket July and August window.

That would have been destructive to the Currie Cup, cost Saru millions in sponsorship and broadcast revenue, and possibly led to further legal action. The new agreement will avoid the situation where all players enjoy the rest period, or off-season, at the same time.

But it comes with conditions that are important to protect players from being bullied or coerced by rugby unions to play when they shouldn’t, or being denied their rest period.

More budget

One of the major concessions is that all South African players in the United Rugby Championship (URC) and European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) tournaments will fly in business class or premium economy.

This has been a major factor in player unhappiness and also in their physiological welfare. The new concession will kick in on 1 July 2025 when Saru becomes a full shareholder in the URC and EPCR.

That step means Saru no longer has to pay R330-million for the Bulls, Lions, Sharks, Stormers and Cheetahs to play in those European competitions. The obvious benefit is that the full shareholding frees up more budget for aspects such as travel.

It is understood that all teams will receive 15 business class flights and eight premium economy flights, theoretically allowing all members of a playing 23 to avoid cramped seats on packed flights. The annual estimate for the additional cost of these flights is R30-million.

Furthermore, all parties have agreed to “structured, individualised eight-week rest periods for all players with formal notice periods when such breaks are to be taken.”

In other words, the player will have a three-month notice period when his rest period is due to start. It will allow for booking holidays and making other arrangements to fully maximise the leave and rest period.

The second concession is that Saru and Sareo will adopt “World Rugby player load guidelines which are in finalisation.” This will also encompass the maintenance of a strict, individual player load monitoring programme.

MyPlayers has accurate figures of player load anyway, but this will formalise the agreement while a joint committee will oversee the implementation of these changes.

By formalising player rest, MyPlayers has put its members in a much stronger position.

If a single player is abused in the system, denied his contracted rest in a 12-month period, or forced to play when he is not eligible, then the entire deal falls away and MyPlayers will enforce the collective eight-week rest period. That would be catastrophic for Saru.

Sensible 

But there is also sensible leeway built in as long as all three parties – MyPlayers (representing a player), Saru and Sareo – agree to an individual request.

For example, a player who might have been injured for a long time, and therefore not in need of a rest period, could ask to play and waive his right to an “off-season”. As long as it is accepted by all three parties, it would be permissible.

The initial arbitration award meant that Saru was compelled to allow all provincial players to take their rest period – in other words, their off-season – at the same time and in one designated window. 

As a consequence, Saru and Sareo either had to postpone or cancel the 2024 Currie Cup, set to be played between July and September, or make concessions to players’ needs.

The original arbitration outcome excluded players who will feature for the Springboks in July and August. They had their eight weeks’ mandated rest during a defined January and February window.

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

And to the credit of all parties in the professional rugby space, they have come up with a structured, measurable and equitable framework.

Saru chief Rian Oberholzer during the SA Rugby Elite Coaching Development Graduation at Southern Sun Newlands on 31 July 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Brenton Geach / Gallo Images)

“This has been a very fruitful process, and the outcome is that we have collectively faced up to the realities of our post-Covid calendar and come up with a solution for a problem unlike any other sport that I am aware of,” said Saru chief executive Rian Oberholzer.

“Every sport, everywhere, has an off-season, but we have found a way to balance the equation of maintaining our competition schedule to drive revenues for 12 months of the year while securing player welfare. 

“We might have had to go through an arbitration to help concentrate minds, but the result is a good one.

“The importance of player welfare was never in doubt. The challenge was to find ways to accommodate all needs. I’d like to thank MyPlayers and Sareo for constructively working their way towards this solution.”

Mandisi Tshonti, GM: Player Affairs of MyPlayers said: “This agreement revolutionises the South African playing calendar as it makes provision for non-stop professional rugby. 

“It ensures the commercial engine can keep delivering, by giving broadcasters and sponsors an optimal opportunity to partner with Saru and the competing unions, while player welfare has been enhanced.” DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    “One of the major concessions is that all South African players in the United Rugby Championship (URC) and European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) tournaments will fly in business class or premium economy.”

    About bloody time too. At least the Stormers – who seem to have had the worst of it – can enjoy most of their up-to-30-hour journeys in a bit more comfort. Now the next thing is to drop the Qatar Airways sponsorship so they can fly as direct as possible!

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      Definitely need a sponsorship for direct flights. Hopefully when SARU is a full partner, they can also use some of the money to bolster the squads with players who are currently based in Europe and Japan. It’s remarkable what the Lions almost achieved without a single current Bok in their squad.

    • Graeme J says:

      Besides which, Qatar Airways doesn’t have a premium economy class. Only poverty, business and first classes.

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