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CORONAVIRUS & RUGBY

SA Rugby players agree to collective bargaining over salary cuts

Ruben van Heerden of the Sharks during the 2020 Super Rugby match between Sharks and Bulls at Jonsson Kings Park Stadium, Durban on 31 January 2020 ©Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix
By Craig Ray
09 Apr 2020 0

South Africa’s professional rugby players will present a united front in negotiations with union bosses about potential salary cuts due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced people apart, to adhere to physical distancing regulations, but in many cases, it has also brought them together. That is certainly the case in rugby where South Africa’s 700 professional players agreed to negotiate as a collective unit over possible salary cuts because of the pandemic.

In an unusual display of solidarity, the players are using their collective strength to mitigate the impact of inevitable salary cuts that will result as a consequence of suspended tournaments and curtailed seasons.

It was a unanimous decision taken by the players’ representative body after an SA Rugby announcement that a jointly developed Covid-19 cost-saving plan had, in principle, been formulated.

The plans were made in a joint working group (the Covid-19 Management Committee) including SA Rugby, the South African Rugby Employers’ Organisation (SAREO), MyPlayers (representing the players) and Sports Employees’ Unite (SEU – the rugby staff trade union).

“We have two options,” said Stormers representative and Currie Cup-winning captain Chris van Zyl.

“We can either let individual players negotiate about salary cuts with their respective employers. By doing so, we risk exploitation at the individual and group level; it will be time-consuming and, ultimately, this could force unions and franchises into a financial position they may not recover from.

“Our second option is to have a collective voice at the table fighting our case while keeping the longer-term sustainability of the industry in mind. Given that, operating as a collective is the best option. These are tough decisions, but it’s what these tough times call for.”

It was revealing that Van Zyl raised the issue of potential exploitation by union bosses. As a contracted Western Province player Van Zyl has first-hand experience of mistrust and insecurity resulting from financial instability at a union. In 2017 the WP Rugby Football Union liquidated its professional arm, which faced a R271-million claim from a commercial partner. The ramifications of that experience and the subsequent financial instability at the union has been an ongoing theme for the past two years,

SA Rugby, the mother body which largely funds professional rugby in South Africa through disbursements made to provincial unions from its massive broadcast rights fees, faces huge losses because of coronavirus. As it stands, SA Rugby could lose up to R200-million if Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship don’t go ahead this year.

The natural trickle-down of that scenario will be an inability to pay unions their agreed disbursements, which in turn will affect their ability to operate on a commercially sound footing.

“We have workshopped a number of scenarios based on potential return-to-play dates and identified the most likely financial scenario based on rugby resuming in the third quarter of 2020,” said SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux.

“The industry came together virtually on day one of this crisis to frame a united response. This is not a SA Rugby problem or a unions’ problem; it is everyone’s problem and we are very clear that we have to stand together if we are to overcome it.

“Returning to play as soon as possible is critical for the industry and until we know what that date is – and if it is sustainable in the face of the crisis – we cannot accurately understand the impacts.”

In meetings on Monday and Tuesday this week, players gave MyPlayers the mandate to enter into further discussions on their behalf. Once more details become available, the player representatives will reconvene to approve or reject the industry’s proposal.

“I’ve personally seen and felt what happens when you shoot the cow that gives you milk,” veteran prop and Southern Kings representative Schalk Ferreira said. Ferreira was a member of the Kings when the franchise was liquidated and players lost their salaries in 2016.

“With no money, employers are liquidated, and everyone loses,” Ferreira said. “The impact of Covid-19 is not limited to the rugby industry and the only way for rugby players to ensure a return to play in a sustainable professional environment is if all stakeholders work together. In this regard, we need a strong player voice and not individuals fighting for their own survival in South Africa’s rugby boardrooms. In the larger scheme of things, that won’t end well.”

Sharks CEO Eduard Coetzee told Daily Maverick:

“No decisions have been made. We can touch base when there is more clarity.”

Former Junior Bok world champion William Small-Smith, who is the player representative for the Cheetahs, underscored the importance of reaching an agreement in which all stakeholders in rugby do their part.

“As players, we are aware of the important role we play in the rugby industry and, consequently, in the Covid-19 negotiations,” Small-Smith said. “Our contributions will continue to be dignified, informed and reasonable, trusting that the other stakeholders will assume their seats at the table with a similar commitment to the survival of the local rugby industry.”

Pieter-Steph du Toit, South Africa and World Rugby Men’s Player of the Year for 2019, added:

“It’s tough knowing we’ll probably have to make sacrifices, but if everyone in the industry contributes at the same levels, we’ll all get through this. We have to.”

Former Springbok captain Warren Whiteley said:

“As players working together with the industry as a collective, we have moved mountains in recent years. Covid-19 presents us with a challenge greater than any we’ve seen before. There are more than 700 professional rugby players in South Africa, and the survival of the industry should be our goal in dealing with the pandemic. However difficult these decisions are, I’m still confident that we’ve chosen the best route to do so.”

On Wednesday, MyPlayers had online meetings with all professional rugby teams in South Africa. Players were presented with the same overview given at Tuesday’s meetings. DM

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