Pieter-Steph du Toit (centre). Picture: EPA/JOE CASTRO
Pieter-Steph du Toit (centre). Picture: EPA/JOE CASTRO

The phrase “it can only happen in SA rugby” has never rung more true than it has for a bizarre week that has ended with one marquee World Cup winner in Malcolm Marx lost to the local game and world rugby player of the year Pieter-Steph du Toit a free agent with no fixed abode.

Du Toit cancelled his contract with Western Province just before deadline on Thursday and WP were understood to be working overtime at the weekend on drafting up and agreeing to a new one that will insert minor amendments to his initial deal with the union.

If as expected Du Toit does sign on Monday it will bolster the view that local rugby emerged unscathed from the 21-day get-out clause that was offered to players in return for them accepting pay cuts to combat the losses sustained due to the coronavirus.

But I beg to differ. There was never going to be a mass exodus of rank-and-file players — it was the small pool of locally-based marquee players that were exposed.

One, potentially two, of those players have been lost to local rugby. If post-Covid the intention is to sell and market a regional competition that will attract viewership, big names such as Marx will be needed but are becoming all too rare.

Overseas clubs must have thought Christmas had arrived early when they saw that players of Marx’s stature were being offered as fair game in a hunting open season.

The 21-day clause is unique to SA rugby and I still have not found anyone who can properly explain why it was necessary and how losing players such as Marx and potentially Du Toit is good for protecting the bottom line.

Exporter of players

Yes, the survival of the business is paramount now, but losing primary assets surely weakens your chances of recovery when the pandemic is over.

The Springboks may be the reigning World Cup champions but the national team is only in action for part of the year and SA cannot afford to become just an exporter of players in the way that Fiji and other Pacific island nations have. The local rugby business won’t be sustainable if that happens.

Given that point, what was particularly confounding was the attitude that seemed to be directed at WP’s attempts to retain Du Toit and accusations they were bending rules. If they did bend rules they were rules that should have been bent — retaining Du Toit was surely that important.

WP were not allowed to negotiate with their player and no-one was prepared to give them any leeway. Du Toit’s motivation for cancelling his contract even though he intends staying in Cape Town can be understood considering the background.

He needed to buy time and breathing space. There has been a lot of interest in him from overseas clubs, but he was prevented from entering into any kind of negotiation over the assurances he needed to stay put.

Image rights

It is unclear what demands will be accepted during the  bartering process between WP and Du Toit’s agent/lawyer, or even if the rest of SA rugby will allow WP to sign Du Toit back on. But the assurances he was looking for related to image rights and his being free to start negotiating with overseas clubs over his future post the 2021 British and Irish Lions series.

Just why anyone in SA would want to prevent Du Toit from committing himself to staying is anyone’s guess, but it did seem at times that we were seeing the recurrence of the worst type of provincialism that was rife in the 1980s and early 1990s.

It’s hard to find any other reason other parties would not buy into what should surely be the bigger picture — which is that it benefits SA rugby to have the world rugby player of the year playing in the country rather than overseas.

If anyone in a rival camp was secretly pleased at the prospect of Du Toit leaving WP it was an extremely short-sighted view.

We heard arguments that it was a matter of principle that WP should not be allowed to negotiate with Du Toit on the basis that it was part of the collective agreement that they should not, but it would have been a dereliction of WP’s duty to offer fans the best product they possibly can if they did not do everything they could to ensure Du Toit stayed.

If Du Toit was asking to be exempted from the salary cuts that have been agreed to, or was asking for more money, then that would be different. All he wanted was a few assurances and WP, as should be the case with any union in their situation, should have been granted the opportunity to speak to him without all the fuss that was made.