SA Rugby announces de-centralised player contracting model

South Africa's national rugby union has contracted Springboks Test players centrally since rugby union turned professional in 1996. Warren Little/Getty Images

South Africa's national rugby union has announced a new contracting model as it attempts to develop "greater national and provincial alignment" and "improved succession planning" at Springboks level.

SA Rugby will no longer contract Springboks Test players centrally, as it has done since rugby union turned professional in 1996, while the provincial unions have agreed to cap player budgets.

Instead, the model will see all player contracts "held by the provinces as the primary employers of professional rugby players".

The announcement of the contracting system comes four months after SA Rugby had scrapped the rule that required overseas-based players to have played at least 30 Tests in order to be eligible for Springboks selection.

The new model was developed by SA Rugby in cooperation with the South African Rugby Employers' Organisation (SAREO) and the national players association, MyPlayers, in response to the increasing player drain from South Africa and financial difficulties facing the game in the country.

The model will enforce squad size and budget caps, with defined categories for payment -- including professional, semi-professional, and development players under the age of 21 who have not yet been offered a professional contract.

Professional players will be eligible to play in Super Rugby, Guinness PRO14 and Currie Cup Premier Division competitions, with semi-professional players limited to the Currie Cup First Division and SuperSport Rugby Challenge.

Development players will be limited to under-21 and under-20 competitions, but they may also be used as temporary replacements for professional and semi-professional players in their respective competitions.

The model also ensures the unions and the Springboks work in partnership to develop "players of national interest", and younger players will be offered "commitment clauses" that will reward them for staying in South Africa.

"The existing model plainly was not working," SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux said in a press statement released by the South African rugby union.

"The rugby economy could not continue to support such a large, fully professionalised workforce while the strategy to retain top players in South Africa had become too narrowly focused.

"The new model will see our best players properly looked after from a payment point of view -- in the South African context -- as well as from a player management and development point of view. At the same time it will improve the financial sustainability of unions by controlling budgets and sharing out the Springbok payment budget through the unions to a broader pool of players."

Barend van Graan, chief executive of SAREO, said the model had been developed after a strategic assessment of the existing contracting system against a backdrop of rising player costs, constrained union incomes and the ongoing departure overseas of South African players.

"The new model promises to overcome these challenges and to create a more sustainable contracting system tailored to the specific needs of the South African rugby industry," van Graan said.

"A complementary series of mechanisms are at the heart of the new contracting system. All player contracts - including those of Springboks - will be held by the provinces as the primary employers of professional rugby players."

Rudolf Straeuli, SAREO chairman, said that players required for Springboks duties would be "seconded" by the provinces to SA Rugby.

"The national Director of Rugby will identify Players of National Interest (PONI) at the various provinces, and will cooperate with those provinces, through an agreed 'high-performance program', to ensure that PONI players are contracted and deployed to the benefit of both the provinces and the Springboks."

Eugene Henning, chief executive of MyPlayers, said the players fully supported the model as it provided "a clear career development pathway and greater certainty around contract renewals... while financial resources with regards to player salaries will be optimised".

Agreement between the parties had been reached on squad size and player salary bill to ensure the success and viability of the model, with the caps to be phased in over three years.

Super Rugby, PRO14 and Currie Cup Premier Division unions may not contract more than 45 professional players, operating under a salary cap of Rand 60 million, or of more than R15 million in the case of the Pumas and Griquas.

Currie Cup First Division teams may contract no more than 23 professional players, or more than 40 players in total, including semi-professional players. These teams must operate under a salary cap of R6 million.

The unions may also contract an unlimited number of development players, providing they stay within a cap of R10 million for Super Rugby and PRO14 unions (reducing to R7.5 million in year two) and R1 million for all other teams.

The unlimited development player pool is designed to provide a reservoir for identifying and nurturing young talent within financial limits.

Promising development players will feature in senior competitions to temporarily replace players who are injured or unavailable, preparing them for a senior career.

"The major benefit for the player is that it gives him clarity and certainty on his future, rather than the current situation where contracts expire in October with players not knowing if they'll receive an offer from their franchise or should start looking elsewhere," Henning said.

Rassie Erasmus, SA Rugby Director of Rugby and Springboks head coach, said the contracting model had been developed to create a system to identify, manage and reward the best players to the benefit of the Springboks and the franchises.

"SA Rugby will identify and help nurture young talent from the schoolboy ranks and contribute to their remuneration through the unions," Erasmus said.

"This way we will have upwards of 60 Players of National Interest involved in Springbok planning in an integrated plan with their contracting union.

"It broadens the Springbok pool and will work to encourage our players to remain in South Africa to pursue their Springbok dream. It also gives the national coaches the opportunity to work with the franchise coaches on honing the players' skills on an on-going basis."

The model has been agreed by SAREO members and will take effect at the start of the new contracting cycle at the end of the 2019 season.