Has the Pink Floyd, AC/DC or Led Zepplin of rugby been replaced by Justin Bieber?
In 2011 I wrote a post with reference to the Varsity Cup and how, in many ways it lost its soul when Ikeys (who won the title that year) decided to exploit loopholes in the competition rules and field an ex-Sprinbok in Hilton Lobberts.
I wrote that because personally the amateur game for me is what drives the professional game. It is where the values of the game are taught and celebrated, where it is played with freedom and not with conditioned restrictions, where it is enjoyed for just being a game by both players, coaches and supporters – in essence, it is rugby’s soul.
When the Varsity Cup was first introduced it was perceived to be a platform for amateurs of the game being given a platform to showcase their skills to the world. It was a massive success and a competition which gave rise to players who went on to secure Currie Cup and Super Rugby contracts and even become Springboks.
In a country where being in the right school or where platforms like Craven Week accounts for probably 90% (if not more) of players being identified and nurtured to top flight rugby, it was a breath of fresh air.
Since the Lobberts incident the organisers of the Varsity Cup had a re-look at the eligibility rules of players allowed to participate but that nagging feeling that the competition has lost its purpose or soul has again resurfaced.
I picked up on a comment from a journalist in the last week how certain Varsity Cup players, or students, actually have no idea what courses they are enrolled for in some universities. For the record, eligibility rules state that at least 16 of the match-day squad of 23 must be registered students at the university and if applicable, the student should have at least passed 30% of his subjects of the previous year to be eligible. Also, no player that has received a senior national cap (see Hilton Lobberts) or has played in 4 or more Super Rugby games may play (funny how nothing is mentioned about the Currie Cup which is a senior professional competition).
Now as ridiculous as something like the 30% rule is, let’s forget about that for a second and consider which players we actually see running out for a university like Tukkies every Monday night. Out of the match-day 23 that played against Shimlas I only found 3 players not contracted with the Blue Bulls union on either senior contracts, or junior (U/21, U/19) contracts – with one of those three having played for the Sharks U/21 side in 2012.
Considering those type of numbers I asked the question whether we should not just allow Varsity Cup to become fully professional and drop the charade that it is about amateurs trying to find their way through studies and hopefully a rugby career? For me it is quite clear that the Varsity Cup, considering its popularity and exposure, has become nothing more than a platform for professional players and unions to abuse.
But is there anything wrong with this?
The responses I received on whether the Varsity Cup should just go pro was quite evenly split to be honest, but the biggest argument against this was that the universities with money (or unions investing money or resources into them) will simply dominate as is the case with the Big 5 in senior professional rugby giving the smaller, lesser known universities or those receiving no funding from professional unions no chance or level playing field.
Personally I am in two minds. As many pointed out to me universities like Tukkies, Ikeys, Maties, UJ, Shimlas and even Pukke have always been the breeding grounds for the top unions of this country and I actually cannot see much wrong with unions investing something into these institutions. But should it be the breeding grounds or platform for already professionally contracted players whether at senior or junior level? If the answer to that is yes in your mind, then the Varsity Cup has lost its original purpose in my view and is leaving itself open to be abused by the professional game.
I like Rock music because it has soul, unlike the candyfloss pop music you find these days which is empty and lacks any substance but still ensures the music industry is worth billions commercially. So I ask you, should the Varsity Cup retain the slogan; Rugby that Rocks or adopt a new one to the effect of Rugby that Pops?