Five years from now, South Africa may look back at this season as their definitive turning point in the professional era.

Let's hope so. World rugby needs a strong Springboks.

When you hit rock bottom there is only one way to go. Often it takes the worst of times to bring about change, and that's what we're now seeing in South Africa.

Everything in professional sport is driven by performance. If results don't come, the model tends to collapse, as was the case with the Springboks last year.


Four wins from 12 tests represented their worst season on record. Passionate fans revolted en masse; major sponsors walked away at the 11th hour. By the end of last year, SA Rugby was staring down the barrel of a 130 million rand loss.

Severe cutbacks at all levels tempered such a crippling blow but, coupled with emotions surrounding the Boks, it was a dark time for SA rugby, the worst chief executive Jurie Roux has experienced in his seven years at the helm.

"The last 18 months has been the toughest since I've been involved in South African rugby purely from a performance point of view which then had a ripple impact into the financial world.

"Rugby is not a religion it is the religion. Once your team starts winning, you get people back."

Before results improved sweeping changes were made to the constitution and various sub committees were imploded. Festering self-interest had to be broken down as the first real steps towards everyone working together were taken.

Finally, a well overdue blueprint for national conditioning and coaching, similar to that New Zealand has long benefited from, was established.

Around the same time it became clear the South African-led Super Rugby expansion had failed. The competition would shrink from 18 to 15 teams, and they would lose two.

Unlike the ugly fallout around the Western Force in Australia, a proper process was undertaken involving all six franchises agreeing to set criteria. In the end, the Cheetahs and Kings found a home in the European Pro-14, a move which will eventually give SA rugby the best of both worlds.


Long term, South Africa wants eight professional teams with a four/four split between hemispheres. A tender process begins October 4 and, by end of year, two new franchises will be formed. Despite theories to the contrary, Roux is steadfast in his public commitment to Sanzaar.

SA Rugby boss Jurie Roux. Photo / Photosport
SA Rugby boss Jurie Roux. Photo / Photosport

"We have four teams in Sanzaar; we have two in Pro14 and the other two will start to develop to play somewhere. Hopefully something like the Anglo-Welsh as a development tournament. At the right time in 2020 we can then make a decision on where our bases are.

"We believe we are as strong as we are because we play Australia, Argentina and New Zealand. We measure ourselves by those teams even though the north is getting better. We are committed to Sanzaar beyond 2020."

Noises from the Republic have suggested there could come a time when South Africa's franchises are based solely in Europe, possibly scattered through the English Premiership or French Top 14, but the Springboks still compete in the Rugby Championship.

"Why would Sanzaar allow us to pick the cherries and then leave all of our partners to fight for themselves? It's a pipedream for a lot of people. If I told [NZ Rugby boss] Steve Tew I'll see you for two months of the year and then I'll go pick the riches of the north it would be a very tough negotiation. Sanzaar would say go play in the Six Nations.

"That's a whole new conversation because we are only into the Celtic league at the moment. I don't see any of them allowing us in their competitions anytime soon so I don't think it's realistic."

Roux also moved swiftly to put some perspective around speculation the Boks will soon select two vastly different teams for southern and northern tours, a proposition that would certainly devalue the proud green and gold jersey.

"Having two completely different teams, that's ridiculous. Why would you not play your best team? You might get to a situation where you select four or five players because they are more adapted to the northern hemisphere. Test rugby is too competitive to play the same players week in, week out."

Clearly progress is being made but SA Rugby will always face major challenges. Some test nations confront the same issues but not to the same extent. Others, like government-driven transformation, are foreign to everyone else.

Transformation is, naturally, an emotive, divisive topic both inside and out the national team. Roux describes it as a journey, not an event, but is confident SA Rugby, from junior ranks through to the Boks, is on track to be half/half by the 2019 World Cup.

"We live and breathe it every day. It's the first agenda point on every meeting. It has been challenging getting us to this point as with everything people want immediate results.

"We are now hitting all the targets we jointly set with the Government and we're doing it quite easy. People always think rugby is a white sport. It is not. Eighty per cent of the country is black. It's about getting the players through the structures and to stay in the country.

"The reality is we are ahead of all targets in our structures now. So we feel relaxed about that and the player base is growing. It's always difficult to manage. Our coaches have to be very good people managers but we are far less stressed about it than most people think."

Retaining talent remains another testing issue, predominantly because the rand is dwarfed 18/1 by the pound and 15/1 by cashed-up French teams.

Patrick Lambie, the 56-test utility, is the latest to jump ship. Lambie is 26, and just the tip of a problem that sees South Africa lose far more players and coaches overseas than New Zealand each year which constantly erodes depth.

Some move for lifestyle reasons; for most the money is simply too good to ignore.

Centralised contracts have long made New Zealand the envy of the rugby world, essentially pushing everyone in the same direction - towards the All Blacks.

In South Africa, the vast majority of players are still controlled by clubs or franchises but that may change.

SA Rugby only contracts 16 key players. Ideally this would increase to 40 but, for now, budget constraints limit the ability to widen the scope.

"We are probably one or two months away from a complete restructure of our contracting from our junior through to our senior base. I would not like to say what it is at the moment because we are working hard in a group on that.

"For the first time everyone is working together; Springboks first, franchises second, unions third. That's how we're going to operate."

A major shift is also evident in the Boks' selection mindset.

Those who play 30 tests are eligible from abroad but of the starting team that featured against the All Blacks last night only halfback Francois Hougaard, a late injury replacement, does not compete at home.

"Building a team spirit and a new ethos in how they operate it is natural to have as few foreign players as possible.

"We are trying to fight against the overseas contracting problem but, mate, it is really tough."

Pull together this range of complexities and Roux has one of the toughest jobs in world rugby, though he says that title sits firmly with the Boks coach.

"You've got a lot of influences and balls in the air. Every country has its challenges - ours are maybe just a little bit different to others."

After a period of immense suffering South African rugby's pathway no longer resembles off-roads along the Transkei - a section of the Eastern Cape dubbed the Wild Coast.

But a 57-0 mauling from the All Blacks means a mountain of work remains ahead of the prospect of hosting the 2023 World Cup.

South Africa is competing with Ireland and France for the chance to showcase this pinnacle event for a second time, following its great success in 1995.

SA Rugby has promised World Rugby a 160 million Pound return - around 25m more than the 2015 World Cup cheque. An independent panel is set to deliver its verdict on November 15 and, while there are no guarantees, winning that bid would be timely for a rugby powerhouse attempting to claw its way back.

"It would deliver something to our country that would once again unify us. Sport unifies our country like nothing else. We are going through a time in our country where there is a lot of negativity and something like this would be positive to look forward to."