Contract killer

MARK KEOHANE, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says Lionel Mapoe has screwed the system.

Lionel Mapoe got what he wanted, which was a ticket out of Bloemfontein. But it was the way that he did it that sucks and betrays his immense talent on a rugby field.

A year ago Mapoe’s omission from the Springbok squad to tour Europe was more baffling than some of the selections. Mapoe was the form winger in South Africa. He appeared the dream selection: young, big, fast and bloody well black. It was as if God had gift-wrapped the complete package for the Springbok selectors who did as they tend to do with the logical and the obvious: they ignored Mapoe, who didn’t need an international tour to stay in the news. If only we were talking about this athlete for the right reasons.

I always imagined the first column I’d write about Mapoe would be in celebration of what he was doing in a Springbok jersey, but before he gets there he would probably have spent some time in every provincial union and probably not have played a game for any of them.

Mapoe, for whatever reason, was unhappy at the Cheetahs and decided the Sharks were his future. The Sharks, never shy to import from the Free State, which is South African professional rugby’s greatest feeder system, did not need a second phone call from Mapoe or his agent.

An injury ended Mapoe’s season and he was off to the Sharks. That he had a contract with the Cheetahs seemed nothing more than an irritation to the player and Mapoe’s rehabilitation proceeded in Durban while the Cheetahs threatened legal action.

The Cheetahs, the punching bag of South African professional rugby when it comes to losing talent to wealthier provinces, were always going to lose because even if a court ruled in favour of the union, all Cheetahs coach Naka Drotské would be left with was a player who had all the talent to be a superstar for the union but no desire to be true to that talent.

Mapoe wanted out and the Sharks were happy to oblige in taking a player still under contract. So when Mapoe walked out on the Sharks a month ago and joined the Lions after the Cheetahs and Lions administration had exchanged notes and put the squeeze on the Sharks, there wasn’t a whole lot of sympathy for the Sharks.

This, though, isn’t about the Sharks, the Cheetahs or the Lions. It isn’t about who is right or wrong and who acted in good faith. It isn’t about who has the moral high ground or whether the Sharks’ lawyers feel there was a loophole in Mapoe’s contract. It certainly isn’t about whether the Cheetahs and Lions feel common ground has been reached and that both unions and the player start 2011 as winners. It is about the absolute disregard shown by yet another player for a signed contract. What does a signature mean to Mapoe? Where is the integrity?

Every year players talk about the lack of professionalism among certain administrators. Players privately bemoan the incompetence of these amateurs who control their professions in the guise of CEOs. But what of the player who screws the system and does a dirty on his own integrity in the process? What a mess.

I have no sympathy for Mapoe or any player who walks out on a deal in which he has committed his name to paper. There is honour in a name and the assumption has always been there is honour in a signature.

Mapoe will get better as a player working with Lions and former All Blacks coach John Mitchell. He will break tackles, make tackles and score tries in next year’s Super Rugby tournament, but nothing he does on the field can disguise his lack of integrity off it.

The Lions must enjoy Mapoe’s talent while they have him, but they shouldn’t be surprised if he’s in Pretoria or Cape Town in February, given his track record.

If you let a player in through the back door then expect him to leave the same way.

– This first appeared in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine.

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