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Are we ready for professionalism?

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I have touched on this topic often in the past, but recent events yet again reminded me that rugby, or rather, rugby supporters, might not be ready for the professional game.

News broke yesterday of Sonny Bill Williams’ decision to further his career in Japan from where he will probably return to Rugby League following a short, but very lucrative stint in what seems to be becoming rugby’s equivalent to the IPL.

Williams made headlines all over the rugby playing world in 2010 when he was enticed to return to his country of birth, New Zealand, after playing for French club, Toulon, in what was reportedly the richest rugby contract in the world at the time.  The move was completed with much fan-fare by the New Zealand Rugby Union where he not only returned to his native country for the Super Rugby competition of 2011 where he played for the Crusaders, but later ran out for the All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup which they won.

He continued to make the headlines throughout this period with his powerful game, but perhaps even more through his ridiculous talent especially his off-loading in the tackle.

Such was his skill that prior to the Rugby World Cup, I wrote that Sonny Bill Williams could revolutionize the game of union similar (if not more) to the extent that icons like Jonah Lomu did in the mid to late nineties.

Of course he was not everybody’s cup of tea, his game was ridiculed by many including then Springbok coach, Peter de Villiers, who famously said he is teaching young kids the wrong way of playing the game – this ironically from someone whose initial vision was to revolutionize the game in South Africa when he was appointed, but that is a story for another day.

Suddenly terms like doing a ‘Sonny Bill’ became the norm in rugby speak amongst supporters, players and the media – where not a game went by that you did not expect something spectacular from the man.

So when news came that Williams will leave New Zealand rugby and join the Japanese league for reportedly R1-million a game, I was surprised by the general reaction by the public who seemed to look beyond the magnificent talent and athlete that he is and immediately labeled him nothing more than a money-merchant, or that he will sell his soul and that of his mother for an extra buck.

I will be the first to acknowledge that his reputation does very little to go against this perception.  In 2008 he left his Rugby League team, the Cantebury Bulldogs, in mid-season to take up his union contract with Toulon.  And even after he joined Canterbury and New Zealand rugby all kinds of special dispensations were seemingly made for him where he was allowed to pursue his career as a professional boxer while being contracted to the New Zealand National side.  But as much as it can be argued that he is a spoilt little brat only chasing money as if he is someone special, we have to acknowledge that he actually is someone very special, who through his skills and talent, is well within his right to chase top dollar in a career with a limited shelf-life.

As much as we seem to celebrate brilliant talent, we also want these athletes to display some kind of loyalty which in a professional sport is almost impossible.

I noticed exactly the same sort of sentiment displayed when young Western Province and Junior Springbok flyhalf, Handre Pollard, confirmed that he has signed with the Bulls.  Where all of South Africa celebrated this young man’s talent and composure not even a week before in the Junior Rugby World Cup final, there were suddenly calls the drop him from the Western Province Craven Week team (of which he is the captain) because he ‘dared’ to sign with the arch-enemy, the Blue Bulls.

It is not to say that I do not feel dejected by the news of Sonny Bill Williams decision, because I do, but not for the fact that he will be playing rugby union in Japan from now on, but for the fact that such a brilliant talent is seemingly lost to the game of rugby union.  At least I will still get to see young Handre develop into the superstar we all hope him to become – even if it is at the Bulls.

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32 COMMENTS

  1. I think its too bad that SBW is on hiatus as well.
    He really proved he was the real deal. But I think he will be back in time for the WC.

    Till then the union public will be left to look for offloading magic of a lesser standard than that of SBW. Messerschmitt Willie LeRoux comes to mind – but seriously – when doesn’t he when skills are discussed?

    How does Handy Pollard stack up against The Goose ?

  2. Reply to Americano @ 3:30 pm:

    Pollard is far down the pecking order Americano.

    There is Morne Steyn and Lionel Cronje is still in the mix there somewhere too.

    Will have to wait and see…

    I think Andries Coetzee at the Lions and Jaco Taute are secretly players of the same prodigious talent provided someone intelligent can use them thusly.

  3. Morne you have balanced both views quite well here.

    For me there is nothing to suggest we cannot develop our own players into similar players. Lomu revolutionized the game but where is he now? There are few giant wings that run the 40 meter in 3,4 seconds… thoise that do are simply labled “another Lomu” – like Wales’ George North for instance.

    However the issue here is one that as Doc Craven said… “nobody is bigger than the game” and one occasionally got the idea SBW felt himself bigger than the game.

    This happens.

    Not just in rugby.

    Century old pro sports like football have their Eric Cantona and Romario types who are prodigiously talented but simply do not have the personal professionalism themselves to utilize that professionalism to their own best interest… as well as that of the game. The same can be said of our own SBW in union… sure he is talented and a superb athlete and player… but from a personality point of view he has contributed nothing to rugby union. Neither did he appear to want to.

    I’m not unhappy to see SBW go… but I have to admit my reading from locals is more indifference than anything else. Maybe Kiwis are squealing at him… after all he left League because of their salary caps which affected his earning capacity and was ridiculously talented there. He joined union and was ridiculously talented in union. Then left his nation to take lucrative money offers in Japan… and then back to a League side for the same reason.

    The talent of the guy must be offset by his personality.

    Lance Klusener in SA cricket is a famous example. So was Herschelle Gibbs. Neither were good for team dynamic although they were fantastic players… both dropped off the radar because of their inability to see the team dynamic.

    In the end in a team sport, individuals must be able to match their incredible talent with the ability to be humble enough to understand that your talent is intricately bound to the team’s abilities to let you shine.

    SBW may be individually talented but as an individual he is greedy and self serving – which is evident from his conduct.

    My view on his announcement is quite sad because I liked the way he played, but as with PDV I failed to see what the hype was about.

  4. Wait I’m not done…

    In the end the question of whether we are professional or not can similarly be answered by reference to premier league football where a guy like Michael Owen was booed when he joined Newcastle from Liverpool and called a traitor.

    Are we fans as professional as players?

    Duh…

    Should we be…

    Why? We are intricately loyal and emotionally bound to our teams… so why not react emotionally to our players leaving and joining other unions and clubs…

    There is no need for fans to be professional… until such time as the unions pay us to be their fans…

  5. Reply to DavidS @ 4:28 pm:

    Yeah nice argument on both counts.

    Firstly on Lomu, I think it is relevant to look at it at the time (when he was a sensation) – to a very large extent he put rugby on the map in those days and for those who already loved the game, he was simply phenomenal – something we have not seen ever and it changed the way we viewed the game somewhat and players.

    SBW is similarly, freakishly talented and could have given union that same WTF feel, so in that sense I am sad to see him go because I believe he is ahead of his time in how he approached the game.

    A local example for me would be Frans Steyn – and in the personality you described SBW we could well tick a few boxes in the Frans Steyn category. Which is why I guess opinion is so divided on the guy.

    You make a good argument for the dynamic of the game and how one can never be too big for it, and I agree this could be his biggest problem, but hell rugby needs personalities like this.

    I for one hated Ollie le Roux as a person, but I thought he was brilliant for the game.

    For me SBW could have served the game of union in a way only about 2% of current players can – so I am sad he is lost to the game of union.

    Lastly, my point about fans is not that we should be professional, but rather if we can accept rugby is professional?

    Our love for the game has been born out of amateur values as supporters and I generally find supporters have a tough time expecting those involved in rugby to be professional, but reverting to amateurism when it suits them.

    Personally I try and look or judge what serves the game of rugby, irrespective of my personal feelings or prejudice as a supporter of a team. SBW would have served the game of rugby imo – caused the Boks a shit load of headaches and possibly losses in tests – but still be good for the game in general.

  6. I think it is very difficult for supporters expectations go hand in hand with the “loyalty” expected from a Professional rugby player.

    A rugby player is loyal to himself and what he requires to do for his future, we as supporters expect our favourite players to continue to represent our teams.

    Of course we are going to be unhappy when they leave, as we identify with those players and our teams.

    Doubt it will ever change.

  7. you only have to eaves drop on a couple of 11 year old boys playing a game of backyard touch to realise what SBW brought to rugby.

    On a different matter but still related to rugby professionalism:

    during Euro 2012 the two teams who made by far the most passes in the group stages both reached the final. The winner is also the team that won the comp. (spain) Italy and Spain also tyop the log (by some distance) for shots at goal.

    Its also a well known fact that Spains coach Del Bosque prefers smaller more agile players. This in stark contrast to 1998 when France changed football with their big muscly players like Viera and Henry.

    So smaller players making lots of passes and playing with intellegence. In an 80 minute rugby game more often than not the 12 and 13 between them dont even make 10 passes. The ball is not doing the work anymore.

    I can only hope that with rugby’s development the rules soon again favour a smaller more skillful player over a robust tank looking for a spot to land.

    SBW is a freak in that he is big AND skillful if not that fast. But he gets me out of bed to watch a game – and he inspires kids to still play the game.

  8. I also think a part of what makes football attractive even in low scoring games is that teams today use the total width of the pitch to try punch holes. Its therefore a lateral game as much as it is about moving towards the goal to score.

    In rugby the rules favour a direct approach, and this is why boys go to the gym to bulk up in the first place – to either take the ball up directly with force or to defend against whomever is doing so.

    How do we alter the rules to favour width and in turn move the game away from a situation where 15 bulldozers will always beat 8 bulldozers and 7 wizards?

  9. will it help to reduce the player numbers to 13 but legislate that scrums and line-outs must still have 8 players participating?

    so that out and out speed once more become a factor?

  10. sad fact is had Willie not been off the field the beautiful Aplon try would not have been scored.

    and how often do we see a team reduced to 14 men go on to score because the field is not cluttered?

  11. Reply to The Year of the Cheetah @ 7:21 pm: Not so sure Cheetah, Did you see how Bjorn Basson ran inside then outside Willie for that beautiful try Basson scored?

    I think willie is an exciting prospect, but his defensive technique needs a little work.

  12. Reply to biltongbek @ 7:35 pm:

    a good player on attack should be able to beat a defender one on one. It used to be prerequisite of a wing.

    Willie misses some tackles but he defends well enough to, based on his attacking prowess, warrant a place in any team.

    Its time we stop talking about backline players defense as though its somehow more important than their ability to attack.

    Our Bok backline gets laden with drones who cannot step, pass, or run at angles etc because they are all good defenders?

    On another note, Bjorn Basson is one of my top 5 favourite players in SA so I back him anyday.

  13. OK, here is my sour note:
    I never thought Lomu was great.
    Maasive hype surrounded him.
    Poor defender, slow on turnaround.
    Poor kicker.
    Poor passer.
    He had only one atribute: Speed in
    moderation but immense power.
    He ran over opponents that could
    not tackle.

  14. Biltong

    That is highly unfair. You simply cannot expect a fullback needing to come up and defend against a wing who’s been given space by your own defenders to stop a guy flying at you jinxing left and right.

    The fact is in that situation 99% of defenders would have been left for dead.

    It didn’t look good for Le Roux, but I’d put good money that with the space Basson got there is no fullback in the world that would have stopped him.

  15. Reply to The Year of the Cheetah @ 7:39 pm: Guys, I am not being unfair, Cheetahs brought up the fact that Aplon’s try might have not been scored if Willie was there, all I reminded him of was Bjorn flatfooted him, and once again by the same token as Cheetah said, a good winger one on one will beat you.

    If Bjorn can do it against Willie, why not Gio Aplon?

    surely the same principle applies?

    I have absolutely nothing against Willie, I think he is a very exciting young prospect.

  16. I thought Messerschmitt-Willie looked awful vs Basson during that try. I cringed – I admit it.

    But I’ll defer to DavidS…..the deck was stacked with all the space and Basson is no slouch ( but does he not turn into a church mouse or what with a Bok jersey on?).
    The image that comes to mind is that of the Chinaman standing down the tank in Tianamen square…next frame was probably the dude getting squished but he did his best – so to Willie vs Basson there. Whatchya gonna do?

    I think all the Cheetah defensive stats should be judged on a curve. They are legend for having the team defensive prowess of the Polish army and it stains all that wear the Fun N Gun Cheetah shirt – look at Brussouw numbers.

    Besides the Messerschmitt’s offloading and distribution nous the thing that sets him apart is his opportunism. He’s the Cecil Rhodes of wings.
    Guy is clutch in situations where other “wing-types” would get into a fetal position.
    Swash-Buckling Willie doesn’t he goes for the throat.
    HM if you’re reading this ( and I secretly know you are )…please feel free to add supportive comments

  17. SBW revolutionized rugby the same way Jonty changed the face of cricket with his swallow dive. Anybody that can’t appreciate the skill that SBW has need to get his head looked at. Go check for some of his videos on youtube and look how many times tries were scored by players around him that wouldn’t have been if the ball was carried by anybody other than him.

    My advice to any rugby player would be to walk around with a ball and try to learn how to do the same thing. It is very hard to defend against the offload. If we in SA combined our power and strength with a offloading game we would be unstopable. A thing to add though is that the supporting players needs to know what is going on and which lines to run.

    Sonny Bill wasn’t born with his mad offloading skills I promise you. He practiced them. But we still have profesional players that can’t do a spin pass to both sides.

    I myself started working a lot on my offloads and my game has evoloved a lot. For the better.

    Cheers

  18. Reply to Methos The French Stormer @ 12:09 pm:

    Franny has always had a good off-loading game (before OS move)… it’s just he’s never had decent support runners/lines off him…

    It’s all very well wanting to off-load in the tackle… but if the support players/lines aren’t there it goes tits-up…

    Here’s hoping the Boks and RSA teams can bring that aspect of their game up to scratch…

  19. Hi all,

    As an AMATEUR club I need your help – any ideas where we can get a good (Cheap!) deal on Tackle shields?!

    @Methos – maybe someone at your club has a contact in France?

  20. POLLARD OUT
    Western Province flyhalf Handre Pollard will miss the rest of the Craven Week after suffering a quad injury during his side’s 47-27 loss to the Blue Bulls on Tuesday.

  21. Reply to biltongbek @ 11:25 pm:

    What I meant was the ball Grant Chipped would have landed straight into Willies hands and would have been deemed ‘possession’ kicked away.

    Grant kicked it smack bang where the 15 usually stands on defence.

    Hence me saying with more space on the field these kind of tries are possible.

  22. The guys who cannot pass to both sides or offload are Jean and Meisiekind but both have a million caps because they

    DEFEND well…

    :whatever: :tpuke:

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