Rugby Treading a Fine Line with its Global Image

There probably isn’t a hotter topic in rugby globally right now than funding.

Whether it’s English Premiership club Saracens and their punishment for breaching salary cap rules, or the controversial signing of Israel Folau by Super League side Catalans Dragons, the sport undoubtedly cares about its image in both Hemispheres.

Disgraced Australia fullback Folau followed fellow cross-codes star Sonny Bill Williams in leaving Down Under for the lure of a big money switch to rugby league from union. There is a strong desire in all corners of the globe to keep the game sustainable and not infected with the kind of monumental salaries paid to professional footballers.

At a time where disruptive influences are being sent away, see influential fly-half Finn Russell missing the Six Nations opener for Scotland following a bust-up with national coach Gregor Townsend, some mixed messages are being sent.

Part of the healing process, due to the country’s past, which is still ongoing in some communities, came through the unifying power of sport. Some 24 years on from their maiden Rugby World Cup success in 1995 with Francois Pienaar, the Springboks lifted the trophy for the third time – but this was their first with a black captain.

Their new head coach, Jacques Nienaber, must try and build on Rassie Erasmus’ great work. Rugby South Africa revealed modest profits of R2,300,000 for the previous financial year in 2019.


It remains to be seen if winning the Rugby World Cup has further filled the coffers of the rainbow nation’s governing body for union. A World Rugby grant given to competing nations in their global tournament should help paint a healthier picture than previous years at any rate.

SARU posted losses of R15,700,000 as recently as 2017, and grassroots rugby is bound to have felt the pinch over that, which makes the subsequent World Cup success by the Springboks all the more remarkable.

The Southern Kings – formerly a Super Rugby franchise, who are now playing in the Pro14 with Northern Hemisphere teams from Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales – have come into private ownership. Their expenses and funding are no longer financial responsibilities for Rugby South Africa, so perhaps that will free up some funding for projects.

As leagues like the Pro14 and Super Rugby bring increased professional competitiveness to elite sport in South Africa, it begs the question; will fans ever be able to fund a rugby club again? In the past, winners of international lotto events have used their payouts to fund investments into football clubs, such a Livingston FC and Torquay United in the UK. Furthermore, supporters’ trusts and fans’ groups exist throughout the world, with members having various degrees of influence depending on each individual group’s situation.


The Scottish Premiership soccer side Hearts are set to become owned by fans, come the end of the British football season. However, the franchise model of Super Rugby, in particular, precludes this at the top of the pro rugby union in South Africa.

The pursuit of sponsorships, and a more commercial approach to pro sport, is a divisive issue with fans. Without it, the product arguably wouldn’t be as good; but is the price of such rugby seeing the sport sell its very soul to advertisers?

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