Future Kings of our game

MARK KEOHANE, in Business Day Sport Monthly, writes the Kings of today can be the Sharks of the future and recalls how the B-section Banana Boys morphed into Super Rugby’s Sharks.

The South African Rugby Football Union has spent 100s of millions of rands on transformation and supposedly developing the code.

Cash spend does not translate to change and there has been admissions from within the SARU hierarchy that the game has failed transformation and that a new transformation charter was needed. More cash would be spent, more development centres would be built and there would be another cleansing of conscience.

But the heart stays the same within the administration of the South African game. Those who have been there for the last decade are still there. They didn’t want change 10 years ago and they don’t want change now.

Actions speak the loudest and the actions in relation to the Kings have been as loud as a bomb blast, which has blown apart the myth that those who govern have an interest in the game beyond their own agendas.

Please take the Lions out of the equation for the purposes of understanding that the Kings inclusion in Super Rugby was not of their doing and it was not out of spite towards the Lions.

This is not a Lions versus Kings discussion and it should never have been a Lions versus Kings discussion when it came to growing the game in South Africa.

Let’s also put South African rugby into perspective. A local PSL match on Pay Per View channel SuperSport got a viewership of close to two million. On the same day the Springboks played Ireland in a Rugby Union Test. The viewership on SuperSport was around 650 000.

Rugby is not the number one spectator sport in South Africa. It never has been. It is primarily a sport played by whites and watched by whites, yet the future of South African rugby will never be restricted to whites. The numbers don’t allow for it, but those elected to govern the sport have never made the shift in their conservative thinking.

Transformation is a way of life in South Africa. It is not a short-term project or one that will run its course in a decade. It is about creating opportunities and about strengthening the fabric of this nation. It is about making South Africa a stronger nation. To transform is not to terrorise. To transform is not to turn traitor. To transform is not to traumatize. To transform is to inspire and be inspired.

The Kings are an overdue transformation story in South African rugby. The Kings, by virtue of what they will represent to the strength of the future of South African rugby, are the greatest story in the code’s unification. The Kings should have been celebrated from within the corridors of the national administration. They never were and until a new generation of South African governs the interests of the sport they never will be celebrated.

For the purposes of clarity, a new generation of South African is not stereotyped to skin pigmentation but to a way of thinking. It is about mindset and about finding the minds who can transform the game and the ethos of the game because of the way they think about South Africa as a society and rugby’s role within that society.

The argument that the Kings should never have been included in Super Rugby because they didn’t earn the right to participation is flawed. The Sharks, when still Natal, never earned the right, through performance, to the Currie Cup A section. The tournament was expanded to accommodate a province many within the administration believed had the potential to add to the landscape of a more potent South African rugby product.

Natal, the darlings of the B section, were losing all their best young players to A section provinces. For the sport to have a presence in the province and South African rugby, and an influential future in the game a change was engineered more than it was ever earned through player performance.

It was the right administrative decision and the Sharks are now among the world’s premier provincial and regional brands. Local Academy structures are strong and local young talent within the province and region want to first and foremost play for the Sharks.

The Kings of today are a repeat of yesterday’s Natal and the Kings of tomorrow (be that in three years or 10 years) will be a similar success story of what happened in Kwazulu-Natal.

They won’t get there because of any SARU influence, any SARU assistance, any SARU inspiration, any SARU goodwill and anything SARU’s elected officials and paid officials have done. They’ll get there in spite of a national governing body and not because of the qualities of the leadership of this body of people.

The actions within SARU in relation to the Kings have been despicable but they have also been another reminder to why transformation has stuttered to a standstill, by way of mindset and manner.

SARU president Regan Hoskins has always been comfortable in never doing the uncomfortable. It makes him popular among the traditional conservative provincial presidents that determine South African rugby policy and year after year reaffirm that change is to be cursed and treated as a cancer to the wealth and health of the haves in the game.

Hoskins, when asked to lead, has only been prepared to hide.

Not once was there a message of goodwill in the build-up to the Kings opening Super Rugby match. Not once was there anything from the national structure to applaud and celebrate the most monumental of moments in unified South African rugby. Hoskins never made it to Port Elizabeth for the historic occasion. No SARU official was there outside of regional host and Eastern Province president Cheeky Watson.

Rugby supporters, the majority ignorant to what the Kings as a franchise would represent to the future of South African rugby, berated the decision, mocked the quality of the Kings squad and predicted embarrassment to South African rugby.

The Kings participation was not a rugby decision but no one within the national framework made a concerted effort to kill of the debate of this being a Kings versus Lions issue.

SARU’s hierarchy was satisfied to sit idle as the Kings were torn to pieces in the media and among supporters for even being in the competition.

The Zimbabwean-born Wallabies captain David Pocock tweeted a good luck message to the Kings on the morning of their tournament debut. Others in New Zealand and Australia followed but there was nothing of the kind in South Africa.

There was no press release from SARU, nothing from the Bok coaches or Bok captain. There was no celebration and there was shock when the Kings became the first new team by way of tournament expansion to win on debut and the first new team to keep a Super Rugby finalist tryless.

The ground attendance at the matches against the Western Force and Sharks was 32 000 and 42 000 respectively. The haters refused to even concede this, tweeting that a region that had never enjoyed Super Rugby was expected to turn out. If they didn’t it showed there was no interest.

The same ones using this base and ignorant argument never mentioned crowd attendance in Bloemfontein and Johannesburg. There was also no mention of the crowd attendance during the lean Super Rugby years at Loftus and Kings Park.

The haters after week one, said it wouldn’t last. The haters, after week two, said the referee kept the Kings in the game. These are views from allegedly South African rugby supporters.

Those who govern the game can influence the views of those who support the game. In the month of March there was stubborn silence from within SARU.

The haters of the Kings still dominate the social media but there has been a grudging acknowledgement of the fighting qualities of a team that has only a handful of players who would make the starting line-ups of the other South African franchises.

SARU only confirmed the Kings tournament participation in August 2012 and then only guaranteed the newcomers one season. The region could not sign players from within South Africa or Europe on one-year contracts when others were offering three-year contracts.

The country’s best black players, most of them from the Eastern Cape, would not be lured back on the promise of potential and such uncertainty. Instead they would play against the Kings in 2013.

When Australia’s two new teams played in their first season everything was done to strengthen the squads by way of allowing for the squad selection of as many as 10 foreign-based players. The newcomers also could not initially lure established Australian players already on contract.

The Force and Rebels were about growing the strength of Australian rugby and the appeal to those who traditionally favoured other codes. The Kings are a similar story in South Africa. They are far more than a rugby story, even though their rugby story has been one of romance and players earning respect through performance.

Their overall story though is the more disturbing because it shows that no rugby transformation charter can ever be taken seriously when those who govern the sport can’t take the Kings seriously enough to even attend their tournament debut.

Rugby administrators, rugby sponsors and supporters of rugby the way it was in isolated South Africa will justify an argument based on their distorted reality that the Kings are only about rugby.

The Kings will find favour with those who invest and believe in a better country and healthier South African sporting landscape. Not so where ignorance and intolerance is presented as inspiration.