A new generation of rugby players are establishing themselves in the professional era: Those who study AND play rugby full time.
This is a much-needed development, as Netwerk24 recently reported that SA Rugby is set to adopt a new contracting system that could reduce the country's number of professional players by more than 50%. Currently there are almost a thousand professional rugby players in South Africa.
Former Junior Springboks Ernst van Rhyn (Maties), Nama Xaba (UCT) and Edwill van der Merwe (Maties) have been studying for the past few years already. This year's Junior Springboks front-row – Sazi Sandi, Dan Jooste and Leon Lyons – are all studying at Stellenbosch University (SU). Other Junior Springboks at Maties are Ben-Jason Dixon and Schalk Erasmus.
According to Edwill, self-discipline is key. “I put in a lot of extra time to make sure I stay up to date with my studies. I am also fortunate to have friends who are willing to help."
Other youngsters who are making sure that they are set for life after rugby include Cornel Smit, Tristan Leyds and Lyle Hendricks; all WP-contracted players who made their debut in the Varsity Cup and Varsity Shield this year.
“To be honest, at times I don't really know how I'm managing rugby and studies! I just make sure that I'm up to date all the time. I also work every moment I get, because time is not a luxury you have as a student-athlete," says Cornel Smit (Maties).
Current WP u19 player Christopher Schreuder is also a student at SU. “It is all about time management and planning. Self-discipline is very important. Sometimes the rest of my teammates will take a nap after a hard training session, but I must use this time to study or go to class. Luckily, I learnt at Grey College how to keep more than just one ball in the air! I am thankful to WP for giving me the opportunity to study and play rugby – living a balanced life."
Ilhaam Groenewald, Chief Director of Maties Sport and President of USSA, believes that the new contracting system will affect university sport positively.
“My hope is that more young men and women will take the opportunities available to them to venture into higher education and to graduate with certificates, diplomas and degrees. The University Sport South Africa (USSA) national rugby tournament is already big – with over 30 teams – and with more players joining universities, it could provide an opportunity for USSA Rugby to revisit its competition structure to be aligned with and to support the national development plan of our players, specifically in the u20 age category," says Groenewald.
“From a rugby product point of view, it is important for universities to be included in conversations about competition structures and the management of players, coaches, medicine and sport science staff, etc. Unless we build a system that ensures the holistic well-being of all facets of the game, success will not be lasting."
Universities might have a bigger influence in the players' future. According to Groenewald, player management and high-performance management will play a big role here.
“This means extensive resource investment with the focus on 'student-athlete' versus 'rugby player'. It is therefore important that the vision and objectives of university rugby teams are understood and respected. We need collaboration that focuses on life after sport for the player. In this respect the new contracting system could make a significant difference."