Making history

CLINTON VAN DER BERG, writing in SA Rugby magazine, discovers the EP Kings have finally got their act together, on and off the field. Now they want to help change the face of South African rugby.

Forget the 1995 World Cup triumph. Forget the follow-up in 2007. For that matter, forget next year’s big bash too. Forget all the bumph that came before about transformation: quotas, clinics, racial incentives, affirmative action appointments, blahdeblah. When the definitive history of South African rugby is written, 2010 will stand as an epoch-making year.

Rugby’s most transformative act of the past 20 years occurred in Port Elizabeth this year when the Eastern Province Rugby Union finally sorted out its nonsense. Given its squalid history, this was no mean feat.

South African rugby has always lived in its own parallel universe, à la Alice in Wonderland: the pretence that the game was racially inclusive, even when the heartland of black rugby was out on a limb.

It matters because the Eastern Cape is a hotbed of black rugby. It matters because rugby passion is nourished there from a young age, not by made-for-TV clinics, but by a heritage that dates back over 100 years when blacks first played rugby. It matters because there’s nothing fake or contrived about it. The crime, such as it is, is that no one ever took the trouble to include the Eastern Cape in a meaningful way.

In 1995, everyone basked in the rainbow nation’s victory glow, thanks in the main to Nelson Mandela’s magnanimity. Blacks and whites danced in the streets. All was good with the world. But it was a false dawn and the massive goodness was never harnessed, to the eternal shame of the powers-that-were.

EP, meanwhile, limped along. There was fraud, back-stabbing, power-broking and politics. There was even occasionally some rugby, but the narrative was steadfast: exciting players emerged from local schools, only to move to bigger unions. Why should they have stayed?

EP feasted on the scraps. In recent years they flexed their political muscle and demanded a place at the Super Rugby table. ‘Get your act together first,’ Saru correctly demanded.

Cue Cheeky Watson. The maverick businessman was installed as president. Everyone waited for Watson to fail, except they misjudged him on one thing: Watson is a rugby man to the core and his blood runs deep in the region.

Next, Anele Pamba was appointed chief executive. A former prop forward for the African Bombers, he too cared and was known for getting things done.

Act three was to hire top coach Alan Solomons, a stickler for systems and structure. Besides, he was schooled in the region and dared dream of the possibilities.

The EP Kings have finally got their act together, notwithstanding their horrible promotion-relegation second leg blowout against the Pumas, and now have the splendid incentive of Super Rugby in 2013 to work towards.

And we should all applaud, for this is the moment South African rugby has long awaited. Indeed, you would be living in a fool’s paradise if you believed that South African rugby could continue without incorporating the Eastern Cape’s black rugby diamonds. It’s not only right politically and socially. It’s right morally.

To hear how Eastern Province effected the turnaround is to be reminded of the virtues of teamwork, leadership and vision.

To a person, the people SA Rugby magazine spoke to remarked on playing a small part in history, of putting in place something deeply significant for future generations. If that sounds trite, don’t believe it: the potential is massive and could be felt for generations.

Given the history of the region, rugby is unashamedly political and Watson smartly uses this as an asset. On occasion, his voice has boomed at team talks: ‘Recognise that the English fought the Boers. Recognise that the English put the Boers in concentration camps. Recognise that the Boers came up with apartheid. And recognise that the blacks have taken it all back.’

This is a call to arms, not to fight, but rather for the players to recognise one another’s differences.

‘They’ve responded unbelievably,’ says Watson, who has the advantage of having reached this point in his journey via a thousand hurdles. He knows what it takes.

His message was simple: ‘I tell them this is the heart and soul of black rugby in this country and it’s been marginalised – until now. They must look at the number of blacks in former Model C schools who have nowhere to go [rugby-wise]. The white kids typically have a support base, but it’s not the same for black guys, whose mother and father may be factory workers. The answer is a Super Rugby franchise, which is why the EP Kings jersey is more important than any other in the country. This is history we’re talking about and we’re impacting on history.’

Every player and member of management at the Kings has embraced this vision and concept of inclusiveness.

It’s been a tough slog, but structures have been put in place, not least by Solomons, and the fruits of their labour are showing. Quite apart from the reasonable success of the Kings themselves, the union recently received an unqualified financial audit for the first time in 10 years. Twenty-one junior players have received contracts, the first time this has occurred in a decade. To quote Watson: ‘We’re fighting like mad for a Super Rugby franchise.’

Part of this ‘fight’ includes a bid to play the five existing Super Rugby franchises early in 2011, followed by three matches against European clubs and a round of friendly fixtures against Currie Cup teams. Added to this is the exquisite showcase provided by the Tri-Nations Test against the All Blacks in Port Elizabeth next August.

Watson refuses to take the credit, rather pointing to Solomons as the key man. ‘He’s highly intelligent and offers a rugby and legal background, plus a 24/7 work ethic. He is professional to the core and expects the same from all of us.’

Given his experience, with the Springboks and the International Rugby Board, among others, Solomons could have picked any top job. Yet he chose the backwaters of Port Elizabeth. A Grey High old boy, he grew up in Summerstrand. ‘I wanted to be part of something special,’ he says, ‘something that will enrich South African rugby.’

He met with Watson and Pamba and was deeply impressed. ‘Our visions coincided. This is the cradle of black rugby and I realised that having a franchise would give a huge opportunity to the indigenous people. I know Cheeky and Anele will deliver. This will enrich rugby and what we leave behind will be far more important than what we do now.‘

He says his legal background (20 years as a senior partner in a law firm) has given him an ability to analyse, something he has brought to the EP Kings. ‘Cheeky and Anele have been fantastic. All the people in the union are positive and prepared to work hard.’

Solomons’ first step was to settle on his senior management team. Adrian Kennedy, who worked with Solomons at Western Province, the Stormers and Ulster, is on board. So too is Robbie Kempson, the academy manager, and David Maidza, who assisted when the Southern Kings played the British & Irish Lions last year. Phil Mack, the former Western Province and Ulster conditioning coach, signed on in November. It’s a powerful bunch, supplemented by a support staff who all have Solomons’ blessing.

Solomons’ job is two-pronged: to develop the professional squad and to get the academy up and running by 2011. Players have been contracted and no less an icon than Danie Gerber has been visiting schools on behalf of the EP Kings, establishing relations and getting them excited. It all fits in with a stated philosophy of ‘Keep them home and bring them home.’

‘We don’t want guys from outside the region,’ says Solomons. ‘This policy has been hugely positive.’

The move to the magnificent Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium is another fundamental sign of EP’s ambitions. Local totems like Rory Duncan, Mzwandile Stick and Darron Nel were all brought back. ‘Everybody has worked flat out,’ says Solomons proudly. ‘I love it, it’s a great working environment and Cheeky and Anele have been bloody marvellous.’

The Kings even have a travelling fan base, who bus their way to games, as they did to Witbank for the first leg Currie Cup promotion-relegation game. It took them 16 hours. ‘These are black guys and the vibe transcends all communities. Within the team we have English, Afrikaans, Xhosa.’

Says Debbie Ellis, operations manager of the Kings: ‘The brand is growing so quickly, it’s a battle to keep up. It’s the best rugby vibe I’ve experienced in the city in the 15 years I’ve been involved.’

Stick, a Springbok Sevens stalwart, says the key to their success has been the broad interest in the team rather than politics. ‘We’re the most multiracial team in the country. I left sevens to come here to be a part of history. Most thought we’d get a hiding against the Pumas, but it never happened. This team is on the up.’

If the team has come to the party, so have the chiefs. Says Pamba: ‘It all changed with Solly’s arrival. The greatest thing was the executive giving Cheeky and I the mandate to put structures in place. They call us the Three Musketeers.?Beating the Pumas and gaining promotion was in all our dreams. Solly was especially emotional after failing to do so. But people realise there’s a golden opportunity to be in the headlines again, but for the right reasons – rugby reasons.’

EP’s emergence is more than a little town triumph. It is a triumph for us all.

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

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