The first round of this year’s Currie Cup once again showcased the value that the so-called smaller unions, Griquas and the Pumas, adds to the hallowed domestic tournament.
Indeed, Brent Janse van Rensburg’s provided a massive highlight, comprehensively crushing the Sharks 37-13 in Durban of all places.
And Jimmy Stonehouse’s charges from Mbombela should’ve buried the Lions after establishing a 16-point lead at Ellis Park before suffering an agonising 37-38 loss.
However, the competitiveness the two teams bring to the table won’t mean much in future if South African rugby’s economic challenges aren’t addressed.
Stonehouse warns that the situation is particularly dire for the non-Super Rugby and Pro14 unions.
“I’m very worried about sponsors for the smaller unions,” he said.
“When I started coaching, I thought that winning brings in money, but it doesn’t. People don’t sponsor you because you are doing better and achieving results, they sponsor because it is a name brand.”
By all accounts the Pumas have raised the profile over the past decade, especially in consistently winning Provincial titles (Vodacom Cup and SuperSport Challenge), yet their biggest exposure remains the Currie Cup.
The problem is that the Currie Cup’s format changes annually and this year’s edition is a particularly watered-down affair – a single round of fixtures with a maximum of three home matches during the round robin.
“You need money,” said Stonehouse.
“But what are you selling? You’re selling three home games for suite owners. Who’d buy that? How much does one pay for that? What business will invest in a union that only plays in front of a larger audience three times a year? Your labelled a franchise (by SA Rugby), but you don’t have the money to show for it.”
Despite local rugby continually struggling to tame the overseas exodus, the plucky Pumas and Griquas have recently recruited smartly by exploiting South Africa’s tendency to indulge in wasteful contracting.
SA Rugby director of rugby and Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus’ bold new contracting model, which puts a cap on the amount of players a union may have on their books, theoretically opening up the market for reasonably high profile players – cut from Super Rugby franchise groups – to seek a new home in Kimberley or Mbombela.
Yet the reality remains stark.
“If you’re getting more money in, you can attract more quality players if they can’t make the cut at a big union because of the player cap,” said Stonehouse.
“You might gain some of them, but how do you pay them? You need money. And if you don’t have it, what’s the next step? They will leave the country.”
The 55-year-old, who enhanced an already stellar coaching reputation by coaching Japan’s Toshiba Brave Lupus between 2015 and 2017, believes there’s only one solution – grant the Pumas and Griquas their promised spots in the Pro14, which features Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy’s best sides.
The Cheetahs and Southern Kings already participate in the tournament.
“I really hope that we can play in the Pro14, think is the only way how we can attract sponsors,” said Stonehouse.
“I returned to the Pumas because the plan is to join the Pro14. As soon as you get into a big league somewhere that people will sponsor, it will only be a good thing for SA Rugby.”