Dead end for SA Rugby

Saru will remain lost in a maze of mediocrity unless structural changes are made, writes Gavin Rich.

Um … it has been said so often before, so one almost hesitates to say it again. South African rugby is being held back by an administration that is self-serving and has an outdated structure for a modern sport in the professional era.

That is not just the opinion of one journalist. Consult Google and scan through the articles written about the local rugby power structure over the past decade. Just two months ago, as he packed his bags for a new life in Italy, Nick Mallett, one of the more successful Springbok coaches, took a swipe at the rugby politicians by saying that they were ‘capable of buggering anything up’.

For Mallett, the remarkable thing about the Springbok triumph at last year’s World Cup was his view that it was achieved despite the ‘self-perpetuating incompetence’ of the administrators. Mallett is in Italy because he refuses to get out on the grass and coach in South Africa while the current structure is in place.

And you could say that Jake White made the same decision. White was not fired. If he had applied for a continuance of his contract as Bok coach, and had forced the South African Rugby Union’s (Saru) hand by applying on time, public pressure would have made it impossible for White to be dropped.

But as White outlined in his book, he just grew tired of fighting with people who did not always have South African rugby’s best interests at heart. Better to go seek employment elsewhere than continue with the team that he had nurtured for four years and which, on several occasions, the administrators nearly forced him to abandon.

Then there was Morné du Plessis. Highly respected around the rugby world for his statesmanship and his astute brain and common sense, Du Plessis was elected to the board of directors of SA Rugby (Pty) Ltd in November 2003. By the end of January 2004, Du Plessis was gone.

‘I couldn’t stand the fact that all the rugby decisions were being based not on what was good for the game but on me giving you a little bit of this in return for a bit of that,’ said Du Plessis as he announced his resignation after attending a bosberaad.

Du Plessis’s departure robbed the South African rugby leadership of what would have been a rarity: a former Springbok in a high place. And it was the lack of any respected former players of the game that jarred the most when Dr Ismael Jakoet, secretary of both Saru’s President’s Council and the board of SA Rugby (Pty) Ltd, read out the names of the people currently in office.

The President’s Council consists of the following luminaries: Saru president Oregan Hoskins, deputy president Mike Stofile, vice-president Koos Basson, plus the two independent women elected onto the council, Viwe Qegu Tine and Mandy Kalako-Williams.

Then come the provincial presidents: Boet Fick (Blue Bulls), Jackie Abrahams (Boland), Cliffie Pringle (Border), Pat de Silva and Cheeky Watson (Eastern Province), Rautie Rautenbach (Valke), Harold Verster (Cheetahs), Jan Marais (Griffons), Jannie Ferreira (Golden Lions), Dawie Groenewald (Griquas), Peter Hazard (Sharks), James Stofberg (Leopards), Stag Cronjé (SWD),
Tobie Titus (Western Province) and Gert Grobler (Pumas).

So call out the names on that list who have played rugby at the highest level. Cheeky Watson, who has half a vote as joint president of Eastern Province, may or may not have been a Bok had he not turned his back on the old South African Rugby Board set-up. Otherwise, there is no-one.

Now call out the names of those who have first-class rugby coaching experience. Draw a blank? Thought so. And yet, this is the group that had to ratify the appointment of the new Springbok coach at a meeting in early January.

Apparently, the election was a cliffhanger, with one vote eventually separating new incumbent Peter de Villiers from unlucky former Bulls Super 14-winning coach Heyneke Meyer. Let’s just hope that deciding vote was an informed decision, but don’t bet on it. In many cases, it would have been no more informed than the opinions expressed on the local pub veranda at sundowner time on a Friday.

Let’s look now at the board of the company. It comprises chairman Mpumulelo Tshume, Hoskins, Stofile, Basson, Keith Parkinson, Piet Heymans, Basil Haddard and SA Rugby managing director Jonathan Stones, with the sponsor’s representative, former Sasol director Trevor Munday, being briefed by Stones.

Parkinson was elected as an independent at the last AGM and is an experienced administrator, but again there is a dearth of big-name former players. Heymans, as the representative of the SA Players’ Association, is the man who puts forward the views of the current players, but he is only one voice.

Brian van Rooyen was in charge when Du Plessis resigned – it was the beginning of his reign as Saru president. He owed the smaller unions for their help in winning the presidential election, and what those unions, or rather their elected officials, wanted was power.

So around the same time that the likes of Du Plessis were distancing themselves from the bartering that was going on, there was a quantum change in the way rugby was administered. Under the previous regime, chief executive Rian Oberholzer, who worked in the game on a daily basis, ran the show, and the board of SA Rugby (Pty) Ltd, the commercial arm, was all-powerful.

‘In my time the commercial arm had its own board of directors, which consisted of four independent directors, seven provincial union presidents and the president and deputy president of Saru,’ Oberholzer tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘We did this because we felt it was unworkable to have an 18- or 19-man committee running rugby in the professional era. We needed to be more streamlined, we needed to be quicker with our decision-making, we needed to be more professional and businesslike. For whatever reason, the system was changed after I left the organisation.’

Oberholzer didn’t say it, but the only logical explanation for the change was the ambitions of individuals, namely the presidents of the 14 provincial unions. There were too many of them who resented not being on the board of directors of the company; they wanted more power.
The upshot was that Saru’s President’s Council, and not the board of directors, became the highest decision-making body. The elected officials of the 14 unions became the chief honchos, and not the professionals.

Hence some of the jibes of former rugby people and other critics who label the administrators amateur, with the other charges usually involving terms such as ‘gravy train’ and ‘gin-and-tonic brigade’ because of the perception that the part-timers were in it for what they could get personally from the game.

‘I don’t really know what the board of the commercial arm does now; it seems to be a largely toothless body. I hear rumours that soon it will be done away with completely and absorbed under one umbrella body,’ says Oberholzer.

The problem, though, may not be so much that the presidents have day jobs and don’t generally devote themselves full time to rugby, for obviously there are some good men who give their hearts and souls to the cause, but that their status as leaders of their respective unions means national interests are too often subjugated to provincial ambitions.

All the presidents have the same voting powers, which effectively means that the smaller unions can hijack the process and force the hand of much larger money earners than themselves. For instance, the Potch-based Leopards, who early last year could afford only a part-time, semi-professional senior provincial team, has the same voting power as the Sharks and the Bulls, two of the biggest unions in world rugby.

The money made by the five big unions – the Sharks, WP, Lions, Blue Bulls and Cheetahs – has largely kept South African rugby afloat during increasingly troubled times. It was well documented that Province ran into financial dire straits last year, but without the bigger unions the game couldn’t survive in this country, and the cash-strapped smaller unions are drawing on the Saru reserves.

A couple of years ago SA Rugby magazine published the contents of a document drawn up in 2003 by a task team appointed to investigate the potential financial crisis that was looming and to come up with workable solutions.

‘One of the big conclusions we came to was that professional rugby is not sustainable with nearly 700 professional players. That figure needs to be much nearer 300, which is what it is in other countries,’ says Sharks chief executive Brian van Zyl. ‘All the chief executives agreed with this. They knew what they were working with, they knew how much money was available. It was a great pity the report was not taken more seriously as a lot of chickens have now come home to roost.’

What the task team found back in 2003 was that too many provinces were weighed down by player wage bills that were unrealistic in terms of their income and annual turnover. What was essentially needed was for some unions to shut down, but this would never be acceptable to the officials who have to make such a decision, for they would be voting themselves out of the position that brings them so many benefits. You could say such a move would go against human nature – not everyone is like FW de Klerk.

There is a massive problem, though, when provinces such as the Griffons, Valke, Leopards and Eagles, all of whom have an annual turnover of well less than R10 million, hold the same voting power and say over the affairs of South African rugby as provinces such as the Sharks and Bulls, who boast a turnover of more than R100 million.

The Griffons, for instance, have no more than 22 players on contract and 10 on junior contracts, while at EP a significant proportion of the players play for just a match fee because of the financial crisis at the union.

However, the status quo will remain because it doesn’t serve individuals to lose their power, and it also sometimes doesn’t favour the influential players behind the scenes that often draw the smaller provinces into a voting cartel when it is election time.

Dr Louis Luyt used to do it; Van Rooyen certainly relied heavily on the support of the smaller union bloc, garnered for him ironically by the unseen but nevertheless powerful (in those constituencies) helping hand of former Bok coach André Markgraaff. This has been responsible for some of the more bizarre decisions taken over the years, such as the virtual dissolution of the commercial arm when Van Rooyen took over, a mistake he later appeared to admit to.

The company is now back in business and, according to Jakoet, the governance of our rugby has become more professional, with a more clearly defined line between what the company does and what the President’s Council presides over.

‘It is very simple and it is all laid down in our constitution, where there is a cooperation agreement which specifically states what the company does and what the union does,’ says Jakoet. ‘All amateur rugby is handled by Saru, while in broad terms the commercial arm looks after professional rugby. These two bodies consult with one another. Decisions relating to the professional side of the game have to be ratified by the board, and decisions relating to the amateur side of things have to be ratified by the President’s Council.’

For instance, the competitions committee will report to the President’s Council as ‘amateur’ competitions such as Vodacom Cup and the U21 tournament are subsumed under it, but matters relating to the Currie Cup, a professional competition, are referred to the board. However, there is a lot of grey area, such as the constitutional amendment that stipulates that the national coach and the national selectors should be appointed by the President’s Council.

Effectively, the coach is appointed by Saru’s President’s Council, but after that he is employed by the board of SA Rugby (Pty) Ltd. Understandably this does create problems and it means that the hottest seat in South African rugby is occupied by a man who arrived there courtesy of the whims and bartering processes of men who, in the words of some who have been there, often make important decisions not in the boardroom but over a few drinks at dinner the night before.

By Gavin Rich

– This article first appeared in SA Rugby magazine. The April issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 12 March.