Play now, pay later

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GLAMOROUS though it might appear, a career in rugby is not the wisest choice. Each year, about 200 boys sign on for the first time with one of the 14 unions. At any one time, there are about 1,000 professional players in the system. At the most, 5% of them will make it into the national team, which means they stand a chance of earning enough to live on and, at the same time, investing enough money to retire on.

Salaries for the vast majority of professional players are low. A junior player contracted to one of the eight smaller unions will earn an average of R100,000 a year. A senior player will earn R200,000. The minority who make it into Super Rugby squads will earn between R700,000 and R800,000. They will earn this amount, if they are lucky, for about 10 years. It will not be enough to provide for them and their families once their rugby-playing days are over.

Most contracts stipulate a 40-hour week: players have to report for work between 8am and 4pm and they get 20 days’ holiday a year. This means it is difficult for them to prepare at the same time for a second career by studying or doing some sort of apprenticeship.

Those who make it to Super Rugby can make it work if they are clever about the opportunities that come their way. They can secure sponsorships and make the contacts which might help them get decent jobs after rugby. Some Premier Division Currie Cup players might also be able to leverage their brand value. But for most Vodacom Cup players, the future is bleak.

This is one of the reasons the professional aspirations of the small unions is so problematic. They don’t do these young men any favours.

There is one glowing exception: the Welkom-based Griffons.

The Griffons are an exceptionally well-managed union. They have thought through their role in an intelligent and realistic way and implemented a strategy which keeps the union solvent, treats their players fairly and produces winning rugby.

The Griffons started life as the Northern Free State Provincial team and were based in the then thriving mining community in Welkom. Club rugby was strong and most mines had their own teams.

Now there are hardly any working mines and their funds come mostly in the form of the R10m annual share of broadcasting revenue from the South Africa Rugby Union.

The Griffons decided about eight years ago that the best way to serve rugby in their region was to position themselves as a development unit.

This meant limiting the amount they spent on professional players and instead instituting an innovative system of semi-professionalism. They allocate less than half their income to professional salaries.

Some of their players have full-time jobs at local firms. Their employers usually deduct the time spent on training and matches but the Griffons pay a monthly retainer and a decent match fee as compensation.

Other players are full-time students. Some play for the University of Free State Varsity Cup team, the Shimlas, and they are loaned to the Griffons for five months.

The Griffons management encourage their players to study. They plan their training schedules around the timetables of the students and those who work for outside firms.

Last year, the union took home the First Division Currie Cup, proving that, despite these restrictions, they are still able to produce winning rugby. They also manage to nurture stars for the bigger stage: both Cecil Afrika and Branco du Preez started their professional careers at the Griffons.

Unlike some other unions, the Griffons stay within their budget. For the past six years, the union has broken even, despite the fact that they channel significant funding into the clubs and schools that fall under their jurisdiction. They field several amateur provincial teams, including girls’ under 15s, women’s under 17; provincial under 19s and under 17s.

As a journalist, what impressed me most about the Griffons was their openness. All it took was an email to their CEO, Eugene van Wyk, to elicit a copy of their 2014 financial statements, complete with a detailed breakdown of where every cent goes.

This is despite the fact that Van Wyk is currently in Australasia, touring with the Cheetahs, for whom he acts as team manager.

Instead of trying to compete with the Cheetahs, their local Super Rugby franchise, the Griffons collaborate with them and share resources. It’s eminently sensible and an example that all the small unions should be following.

Semi-professionalism is the way to go for the smaller unions. It means that they can stay within their budgets, provide proper support to amateur rugby in their regions and manage their contracted players properly. And that means ensuring they balance their rugby with preparation for a second career.

 *This column first appeared in Business Day
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GLAMOROUS though it might appear, a career in rugby is not the wisest choice. Each year, about 200 boys sign on for the first time with one of the 14 unions. At any one time, there are about 1,000 professional players in the system. At the most, 5% of them will make it into the […]

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Sponsors could hold rugby to higher standards of governance

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THE question of which lucky South African company gets to channel millions of rands into rugby from next year is an open one. Deals expire at the end of this year.

Sponsors contribute almost half of the R800m that flows into the coffers of the South African Rugby Union (Saru) each year.

This potentially puts the sponsor in a powerful position. In return for paying Saru’s bills, it surely has the right — and perhaps the obligation — to ensure these funds are properly spent?

I’m not suggesting financial impropriety on Saru’s part — it produces a clean audit every year — but a sponsor would be doing South African rugby a huge favour if it were to help Saru to meet its own standards of corporate governance.

There is precedence for this in another sporting code with a comparable history to rugby.

After the Gerald Majola bonus scandal at Cricket SA (CSA), Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula in 2012 appointed Judge Chris Nicholson to investigate CSA. Nicholson produced an excellent report, not only pinpointing the weaknesses in administration but suggesting how they be remedied in line with international best practice.

Momentum Life, cricket’s chief sponsor, went on to stipulate in its contract with CSA that Nicholson’s recommendations be implemented as far as possible.

One of these was that the board, in the spirit of King 3, should ideally have a majority of independent directors equipped with the appropriate skills. Saru does not have a board. Instead, it has an executive council, which has a few independents but the majority of members are elected officials drawn from the ranks of the provincial unions.

These elected officials rely on the 14 provincial presidents for re-election after each four-year stint. This means they are less likely to take hard decisions when necessary, even when it comes to enforcing their own constitution. For instance, the Saru constitution stipulates that each union must provide an operating budget “which should reflect no worse than a break-even situation” within two months of the start of each new financial year. If member unions fail to do this, Saru can stop funding them.

In practice, some unions have failed to submit such financial statements for years. Yet Saru continues to hand over millions of rands to them each year.

Despite an often dire financial situation, unions continue to contract players in the hope of getting some silver into their cabinets. It never happens.

Saru carries the mantle for rugby, a solemn responsibility in a country such as ours. It is the “custodian of rugby in South African rugby”. A sponsor might inquire whether the benefits and powers bestowed on unions are appropriate to the wider interests of the game.

In 2013, the Mpumalanga Rugby Union was granted the right to host a Test in Nelspruit on the grounds that it would help spread the game in the area.

The year before, a study by the Sports Science Institute showed that rugby was played in a paltry 40 high schools in Mpumalanga and there was a total of 23 clubs. Apparently without any assessment being done on whether the Test had produced any long-term benefits for rugby in the region, the Pumas were granted another Springbok-Wales game last year.

 

 

And then there is the question of sustainability, a critical concern for any organisation.

In contrast to Mpumalanga, 458 high schools in the Eastern Cape play rugby and there are 263 rugby clubs. If we want to ensure a reliable pipeline of players, this is clearly an area to focus on. As a bonus, these players largely form part of the country’s dominant demographic — young black Africans.

Saru’s member union in the most fertile area of the Eastern Cape is the Border Union. Chronic mismanagement last year forced Saru to take over the running of the Border Union. The plan now is to get the union’s finances into shape, then hand it back, hopefully to a more suitable administration.

A better solution might be to stop pumping R10m a year into propping up a historically problematic administration.

Disband the union. Instead, use the money to strengthen rugby in schools and clubs. Set in place proper governance and achievable targets and you will be assured of a steady supply of skilled rugby players, most of whom will be black.

Last month, Saru launched its plan for transformation. Well meaning but essentially ineffectual, it was, yet again, all about quotas and numbers.

This plan — promising, for instance, 50% black Springboks by 2019! — is supposed to be implemented by the mostly white, middle-aged presidents who have for years been ignoring quotas.

And, crucially, there are no penalties attached to any union or team which fails to meet these targets.

Fortunately — or unfortunately — rugby has never had a Majola moment. And so it has evaded the scrutiny and external regulation imposed on cricket. Without such a crisis in rugby, the government is unlikely to intervene. But a sponsor can.

 

*This column first appeared in Business Day

 

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THE question of which lucky South African company gets to channel millions of rands into rugby from next year is an open one. Deals expire at the end of this year. Sponsors contribute almost half of the R800m that flows into the coffers of the South African Rugby Union (Saru) each year. This potentially puts […]

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Taking the Bulls by the horns

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ONE of the most comprehensive makeovers of any South African sporting institution was undertaken by Heyneke Meyer at the turn of the century. He transformed the Blue Bulls from an underperforming, amateur outfit into a successful professional business. And he is building on the strategies honed at the Bulls to take the Springboks into the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

The organisational principles Meyer instituted could apply to any modern business: a flattened, relatively transparent leadership group; a culture which prioritised the goals of the team above those of the individual and the systematic development of fresh talent to ensure the long-term sustainability of the organisation.

When Meyer was appointed head coach of the Bulls in 2001 rugby had already been professional for five years but the Bulls had not caught up. Their coaches had traditionally been drawn from the ranks of the South African Defence Force and the University of Pretoria. Their player group was dominated by the fading stars of the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

There was a poor work ethic. Senior players demanded fag-like obeisance from the younger players. Gym was slipshod and amateurish, with wives and girlfriends frequently joining in, which meant there was more preening than pruning. The ruling ethos was army-style: hierarchical and authoritarian.

And their rugby was awful. In 2000 their Currie Cup team was so poor it was relegated to the B division. In Super Rugby they languished at the bottom of the league.

Meyer’s strategy was to invest in a first-class management team that was capable of recruiting and developing promising young rugby players and turning them into Springboks. Where previous practice had been to blow most of the budget on buying star players, under Meyer the focus was on building the institutional capacity to create star players.

The first thing he did was to cull 11 of the 16 Springboks he inherited and drastically cut the salaries of those who remained, such as Joost van der Westhuizen. The money saved went into a recruiting drive for coaches and young talent. The average age of players dropped from 29 to 23.

The tradition in rugby at the time was to appoint a head coach assisted by a backline and forwards coach, each of whom aspired to succeed the head coach. Meyer positioned himself differently: he was leader and co-ordinator of a team of specialists, each of whom had to know more about their field of expertise than he did.

Thus he sought expert kicking, conditioning, defence and attack coaches and then persuaded the Bulls management to employ them. He was also the first coach to insist on a dedicated team doctor to ensure consistent treatment and management of one of rugby’s biggest problems: injuries.

As Marco Botha records in his book, Coach, there was a divisive, envious culture at the Bulls prior to Meyer’s arrival. The under-19 coach hoped that the under-21 coach would mess up so that he could get his job. And the under-21 coach was secretly gunning for the Currie Cup coach’s job. It was the same with the players: each man was in it for himself.

There was little consistency in the style of rugby played by the Bulls teams. A player would have to adjust to different scrumming, tackling or kicking tactics each time he progressed to a more senior team. Under Meyer, everyone employed or contracted by the Bulls was a cog in the machine and either they all pulled in the same direction or they were out.

 

 

Coaches at every level reported directly to Meyer and he thus ensured that teams played the same style of rugby. Specialists from the senior team were deployed to junior teams to ensure their coaches were all instilling the same techniques.

If a spate of injuries meant Meyer needed to fast-track an under-21 player to the senior team, he could be confident that the boy would fit in seamlessly.

It has to be said that Meyer was fortunate in that his tenure coincided with effective leadership at the top. Bulls CEO Barend van Graan bought into Meyer’s vision and backed him all the way, which mainly meant persuading the board to support Meyer and finding the funds to pay his unprecedentedly large coaching team.

Under Van Graan, the Bulls remain the best run union in the country. Despite the fact that rugby has been professional for two decades, South African rugby still tends towards the clubbish and secretive.

Van Graan, alone among union CEOs, keeps his office door ajar, literally and figuratively. Without this kind of openness, it is unlikely Meyer would have been able to achieve what he did.

And his achievements were remarkable: he not only transformed the management model and culture, he also set the Bulls off on a winning streak. They won the Currie Cup in 2002, 2003 and 2004. They reached the semifinals of Super Rugby in 2005 and 2006 and, in 2007, became the first South African team to win the Super Rugby title.

Meyer realised that he needed to be looking to the future as well. Management teams can be relied on to last, but players wear out fast. By the age of 35 — unless they are Victor Matfield who is still playing at the age of 37 — they are past their sell-by dates.

Meyer is clear about what he looks for when he is recruiting: “Character. Mental toughness. After three playing sessions, I can tell you which player will make it and which not. After tough sessions, guys who walk out and sit out will always sit out when it’s tough.

“I also look at their upbringing: when I interview youngsters, it is usually with both their parents. Now, 90% of the time, the mother will want them to be in the hostel: their washing must be done and they must study. The father just wants them to play rugby.”

“You get kids who, in an hour’s conversation, don’t say a word. The parents speak for him. Clearly he can’t express himself. He’s never been able to fight for himself,” Meyer says.

The characteristics Meyer looks for would equally apply to an employee in any other business: self-reliance, discipline, a strong work ethic, a team player and, above all, emotional resilience. The ability to overcome setbacks and come back stronger.

 

 

Again, though, he recognised that recruiting was a speciality and he employed someone else to focus on it. The man he chose, Ian Schwartz, created a database of promising young players throughout the country and built up relationships with school coaches, agents and parents to ensure the Bulls were their first choice once they had matriculated.

Schwartz, along with almost the entire management team originally recruited by Meyer for the Bulls, is now with the Springboks. This was a precondition for Meyer’s acceptance of the job.

“Most of the best coaches in the country were at the Bulls,” he says. “I know because I spent 10 years getting them in.”

So it is the Bulls culture which dominates the national team.

This is largely a good thing. They are highly professional and dedicated. They are also modest, unassuming men who espouse another Meyer dictum: the Japanese philosophy of kaizen — continuous progress and improvement.

This is usually infinitesimal in scale but, incrementally, it amounts to a continuing capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and thus stay on top.

As in every workplace with a strong internal culture, there is the danger of narrowness: Afrikaans is too often used in team talks, which is alienating for black players.

The challenges Meyer faces now are different to those he faced at the Bulls: he does not have control over the workload or the game plans of his players when they are not on national duty.

But, being Heyneke Meyer, he has not let this defeat him. He has worked hard on his relationships with Super Rugby coaches in an attempt to get them to implement similar techniques, sending his specialist coaches to spend time with the Super Rugby franchises.

He has also achieved what no other Springbok coach has, which is an agreement that top Springboks will be periodically rested by their franchises in the run-up to the Rugby World Cup in September.

It’s all about winning, whatever it takes.

• This article first appeared in Business Day

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ONE of the most comprehensive makeovers of any South African sporting institution was undertaken by Heyneke Meyer at the turn of the century. He transformed the Blue Bulls from an underperforming, amateur outfit into a successful professional business. And he is building on the strategies honed at the Bulls to take the Springboks into the […]

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A yen for Japan

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ONE wouldn’t automatically link Japan and SA in a single train of thought: there is limited cultural, tourist and economic exchange between the two countries. We are a young, diverse, developing nation. Japan has the third-biggest economy in the world, a 4.1% unemployment rate and an ageing, homogenous population right now shivering in below-zero temperatures.

But there is one connection between us with immediate consequences for an activity close to many South African hearts. In a Tokyo stadium on Saturday a whisky producer takes on a speed merchant and, once the dust has settled, our Super Rugby campaign should get an additional charge with the return of some of our star players.

The final of Japan’s Top League sees Suntory Sungoliath and Yamaha Jubilo battling it out for the privilege of carrying off the 2014-15 trophy.

Fourie du Preez and Schalk Burger play for Suntory. The Bulls’ Dewald Potgieter turns out for Yamaha. Du Preez, in particular, seems to have been a hit in Japan. And, judging from a recent interview on a Japanese website, he has comfortably adjusted to a more philosophical turn of questioning from reporters than he would be likely to encounter here. Fourie explained that, crucial to his performance, was to “see a picture in my head of how I want to play”.

“Is this picture like a third person seeing from above?” probes the reporter. “I just see good images from my previous experiences,” replies Du Preez.

He should be back here shortly. Ryan Kankowski and Jean Deysel have just returned from Japan to the Sharks. JP Pietersen and Frans Steyn are also due home soon. Jaque Fourie, currently contracted to the Kobelco Steelers, is rumoured to be negotiating a berth at the Sharks.

Japanese steel giant Kobe Steel, owner of the Steelers, has a soft spot for South Africans: they have just waved goodbye to head coach Gary Gold, who takes over as head coach of the Sharks, and will welcome in his stead Stormers coach Allister Coetzee later this year.

Former Springbok lock Andries Bekker still runs their lineouts.

Japan’s top corporations have become sugar daddies for South African rugby, providing temporary respite from the rigours of the professional game here. They not only pay huge salaries, bumping up players’ post-retirement funds, but they also provide a much more holistic, family-friendly playing environment.

All the big rugby clubs in Japan are owned and run by corporations. Most of their players are amateurs. They are company employees who work full-time and practice after hours. During the season they work in the mornings — in marketing, management or production — and practice in the afternoons. Once their rugby playing days are over, these players will remain with the company. There is still a jobs-for-life culture and a steady salary and job security is what counts. Rugby is an extracurricular activity.

Fewer than 10% of players are professionals — and most of those are foreigners. There are limits: there can be only two foreign players on each side on the field at one time. This means that, for the professionals, there is ample family time. Both Du Preez and Schalk Burger have recently added to their families and will have been at home for every developmental milestone. If they had remained tied to the relentless South African rugby schedule they would barely have seen their kids.

A Japanese stint is becoming a favoured option, even for some union administrators, because it means they can cottonwool some star players and are relieved of some of the financial responsibility for those players.

But what is in it for the Japanese? Unlike here, rugby barely causes a flicker on the national radar. Walk into any sports bar in Tokyo and a punter will be able to rattle off the names of 40 baseball or soccer players, even sumo wrestlers, but you’d get a blank stare when it came to rugby players. Someone like Schalk Burger might be noticed in the street for his size and blondness, not for his prowess on the rugby field.

Rugby is shown only on pay-to-air TV, and then fleetingly. It barely features on terrestrial television, which attracts the vast majority of viewers.

Most Japanese rugby players emerge through the universities, but it is the soccer J-League which commands the greatest attention.

Japan is hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup. It must be a worry to the Japanese Rugby Football Union: how are they going to drum up sufficient support in the next four years? Do they have any hope of filling their stadiums?

Presumably it will help that Tokyo is hosting the 2020 Olympic Games. Nationalistic pride in showcasing the country for major international sporting events will already be swelling by the autumn of 2019, when Japan plays host to the world’s top rugby players.

And, from 2016, Japan will have a team in Super Rugby. Bizarrely, it will be part of the South African conference.

*This column first appeared in Business Day

 

 

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ONE wouldn’t automatically link Japan and SA in a single train of thought: there is limited cultural, tourist and economic exchange between the two countries. We are a young, diverse, developing nation. Japan has the third-biggest economy in the world, a 4.1% unemployment rate and an ageing, homogenous population right now shivering in below-zero temperatures. […]

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The Varsity Cup is good for rugby but is it good for students?

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NATURE played its part in kicking off the 2015 Varsity Cup to a perfect start on Monday night.

The competition’s two leading teams — the University of Stellenbosch have won the Varsity Cup three times in its seven-year history and the University of Cape Town (UCT) twice — engaged in a well-matched battle of wit and might to draw 32-32.

It was a rare windless evening on UCT’s Green Mile, the university’s main rugby pitch. Even after the sun set spectacularly over Table Mountain, the temperature remained balmy. Students from both universities turned out in their thousands: girls wearing skimpy shorts and vests in either blue or maroon, depending which university they were from; boys in face paint sporting elaborate haircuts. Music blared from an overloud sound system. Gallons of beer were drunk and a great time was had by all.

For the players, it was the culmination of months of hard training and preparation. They would have had a near professional-level experience: with supplements, expert conditioning and coaching and, given that most of the lead-up period straddled the vacation, the luxury of being able to devote themselves to rugby full time.

The fact that it was one of two Varsity Cup games being televised live on SuperSport added to the excitement. As did, presumably, the presence of the top brass from the Western Province Rugby Union.

What many of the players would have been dreaming of was being spotted and offered a professional contract. The Varsity Cup has largely overtaken the Vodacom Cup as the showcase of hitherto undiscovered talent. Much has been made of the fact that, in last year’s Currie Cup final between Western Province and the Golden Lions, 29 out of 44 players were recruited from Varsity Cup teams.

But the question has to be asked: is this a good thing? What usually happens is that these boys then sacrifice their chance of gaining a degree.

There are very few exceptions: Western Province scrum half Nic Groom is one. But mostly, the demands of professional rugby make it extremely difficult to continue studying. Coaches, themselves under intense pressure to win every game, often don’t make it any easier for their players.

But, encouraged by parents and agents, and their own dream of one day donning the green and gold, many boys are only too happy to swap their studies for the chance of a provincial contract.

And how many actually achieve this dream? This year, the South African Rugby Union (Saru) awarded 20 Springbok contracts. The vast majority of contracted players will be spat out of the system while still in their twenties, with no proper education or vocational training to start a career.

SA is blessed with an abundance of rugby talent but what that means in practice is that there is an abundance of cheap, expendable labour to feed the professional rugby mill.

Only a very few top Springboks who have been able to continue their career until 35 or so will have made enough money during their playing days to set themselves up for retirement. Most contracted players earn only enough to support themselves while playing. And it can be taken away from them at any time for any number of reasons: a career-ending injury, a loss of form, a fall from favour.

An unofficial quota system — which dictates that at least six players in each squad need to be of colour — means that, as usual in rugby, black players, especially those from poor families, are particularly vulnerable.

The onus should be on the universities to protect their students from the lure of professionalism, but such is the marketing power of a winning team that few are able to resist.

In fact, some connive: there are rumours of large sums of money being paid to entice players, and entry criteria being lowered if a player’s rugby talent exceeds his intellect.

Saru attempts to combat this with ever-stricter rules governing eligibility. In earlier years, each team was allowed to field a certain number of nonstudents. No longer. Every player has to be registered at the university for which he is playing. Some universities allegedly got around that by repeatedly registering certain players for first year if they were incapable of going further.

This year the rules have been tightened further: each team is allowed only four first-year students, who have to be 22 or under. The rest have to be in their second or higher years of study and have to have passed at least half their full course load the previous year.

But, no doubt, ways will soon be found of getting around that as well.

None of this is to take away from Monday’s derby. It was a fantastic occasion and everyone involved can be proud.

But, as Greg Fury, chairman of the UCT Rugby Football Club, says, rugby should be only part of a student’s experience. “For the overwhelming majority of players, their general development is far more important than rugby alone. The system should recognise that and encourage it.”

 *This column first appeared in Business Day

 

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NATURE played its part in kicking off the 2015 Varsity Cup to a perfect start on Monday night. The competition’s two leading teams — the University of Stellenbosch have won the Varsity Cup three times in its seven-year history and the University of Cape Town (UCT) twice — engaged in a well-matched battle of wit […]

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Wanted: another coach for Dale College

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JORICH Loubser matriculated last year with six As and, like many thousands of other 18-year-olds, he will soon be starting at university. Next week Jorich will register for a BCom in accounting at the University of Cape Town (UCT). He was awarded a small rugby bursary by the UCT Rugby Club and has already begun training with their under-20s.

What sets Jorich apart is that he is a white Afrikaner who was educated at a predominantly black school, Dale College, in King William’s Town. Having coffee with him this week, he struck me as a particularly heartening example of a born-free white youth.

I’ve been following Dale College for several years because it seems to me to provide a litmus test for development.

Potential Springboks are spotted and nurtured at schools. So if we want more black Springboks it’s obvious that we need to put resources into predominantly black, rugby-playing schools. Dale is perfect for this: it is well run and, courtesy of its origins as a school for the sons of British officers during the Border wars, has excellent, if increasingly shabby, infrastructure. But it suffers from being situated in a badly administered, poverty-stricken province.

When I first went to Dale in 2010 it had one full-time rugby coach, a very basic gym and no help at all from either the Department of Sport and Recreation or South African Rugby Union (Saru). Unlike other predominantly rugby schools, its old boys, who were then still mostly white, were largely uninterested.

The Border Union, the local representative of Saru and responsible for development in the area, was bankrupt. The president, African National Congress heavyweight Phumlani Mkolo, has been charged with the alleged abuse of funds meant for Nelson’s Mandela’s funeral. The union is now being administered by Saru head office.

Jorich, who was head boy of Dale last year, is a good advertisement for it. He is passionate about the school and has an intelligent insider’s view of its strengths and weaknesses. He brushes off questions about race: he says of course he was aware of the fact that he was a different colour to most of his classmates, but that it didn’t affect either his perception of them, or theirs of him. His best mate had a Zulu mother and Xhosa father. His girlfriend is the sister of Bulls player Bjorn Basson.

There have been some positive developments at Dale College, he says.

There has been a surge of interest from more recent alumni, who are less interested in race. Old boys now fund about 40 bursaries a year. This is for both tuition and hostel fees so it comes to about R40,000 a year per boy.

Boys from poorer backgrounds benefit greatly from being in the hostel because it means they get proper nutrition and don’t have to struggle to find the money for transport to get to practice and games.

This year the Department of Sport and Recreation has designated Dale a “sports focus” school, which means it will be funded to help 15 poorer, feeder schools in their area. Probably the most important initiative, though, is from Cricket SA (CSA). Rugby is Dale’s headline sport but the school is also a breeding ground for cricketers. CSA is now sponsoring two bursaries but, even more importantly, it is funding a full-time coach. In the brief time the CSA coach has been there, he has made a big difference to Dale cricket — last year they were unbeaten in both the Eastern and Western Cape.

CSA involvement has also stimulated a new interest in the game and more boys are being drawn in. Last year, for instance, an interclass tournament was initiated that meant every boy got to play on the A-field, giving the coach the opportunity to unearth previously unidentified talent. If CSA can fund a coach for Dale, surely Saru can too?

Jorich, who played lock for the first team, says Dale needs coaches who can improve their technical skills — a kicking coach and a conditioning coach, for example. Dale boys tend to be smaller, so good conditioning is crucial.

The school also needs a war chest to fend off predatory private schools. Dale’s rugby stars are constantly being lured to richer schools that need to boost their black player numbers. Dale can’t compete with private schools, which offer not only full boarding and tuition fees but also enticements such as generous allowances and rugby kit. Perhaps some companies could come on board and help fund such a chest?

Jorich points out that the only Dale player in the past few years who has profited from migration to a richer school is Stormers player Scarra Ntubeni, who went to KES in Grade 10. Mostly, they do not thrive.

It would be far healthier for pupils, and for the school itself, to strengthen Dale and let its boys reach their full potential in a familiar environment, where they are not valued purely for their prowess on the rugby field.

 *This column first appeared in Business Day
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JORICH Loubser matriculated last year with six As and, like many thousands of other 18-year-olds, he will soon be starting at university. Next week Jorich will register for a BCom in accounting at the University of Cape Town (UCT). He was awarded a small rugby bursary by the UCT Rugby Club and has already begun […]

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Sell Newlands Stadium and buy off the clubs

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WESTERN Province Rugby Football Union released a startling statement a week before Christmas, which, predictably — and possibly, deliberately — was largely ignored because most people were already on holiday.

The union announced that, at a special general meeting held the day before, it had been unanimously decided that they would not, after all, be moving to the Cape Town Stadium.

This came as a surprise, not least to the City of Cape Town, with whom they had long been in negotiations.

As a rugby fan, moving to Cape Town Stadium seemed to me to be a no-brainer. It’s situated in one of the city’s most beautiful neighbourhoods and is easy to get to by public transport. The adjacent Sea Point swimming pool and promenade are a magnet for Capetonians of all races.

The Cape Town Stadium itself is modern, built to the highest international standards. It has the wonderful 5km fan walk from the station, which, as we know from the 2010 Soccer World Cup, not only enhances the pre-game “gees” but also spreads the brand and the game to the general public.

Above all, the stadium is safe. Officials guarantee that, in the event of an emergency, they can evacuate a capacity crowd in less than 10 minutes.

This is important because, at the end of last year, the grace period allowed to stadiums to jack up their safety procedures to comply with the Safety at Sports and Recreational Events Act of 2010 came to an end.

Newlands Stadium is not compliant. Fans, particularly in some of the higher-level suites, might feel a flicker of anxiety as they navigate the narrow staircases, cluttered with smokers, some of whom drop cigarette butts on the floor. One shudders to think of what might happen if there were a fire and a mass stampede.

Newlands faithful cite its history in its favour. But what about its many years of shameful history when people of colour were penned into segregated stands and teams were all white?

In its shock statement, the union gave as its main reason for deciding to stay at Newlands that it owns the stadium outright and “is therefore in complete control of its own destiny”.

A valid point. But it could also be looked at differently.

The 90-odd clubs which make up the Western Province Rugby Football Union are sitting on a huge asset.

Perhaps it is time for some blue-sky thinking in one of rugby’s most fertile provinces. Why not sell the stadium and its valuable grounds and divide the money among the clubs? In return, they could give up their claims on the professional arm of the union.

The Stormers and Western Province teams could be owned and run as a separate entity (and hopefully the confusing dual titles — Western Province for the Currie Cup and Vodacom Cup teams and Stormers for Super Rugby — could be dropped in favour of a single name).

Perhaps a consortium of businessmen could make a bid for the teams. This needn’t be a coldly commercial enterprise. It could be stipulated that the owners are Western Cape-based and that independent directors who are trusted public figures be included on the board.

Why not Brimstone’s Fred Robertson, or Johann Rupert? Perhaps Trevor Manuel could be persuaded to be involved?

The Stormers and Western Province teams already have a separate training base at the High Performance Centre in Bellville. The Cape Town Stadium would become their home ground.

The City of Cape Town is desperate to do a deal with rugby to offset its R40m annual running costs. They’d be easy prey for sharp negotiators, especially if the Cape Town Stadium could boost tourism with high-level international rugby games being regularly held there.

A split between club rugby and professional rugby would be beneficial to both. Western Cape club rugby is thriving: many villages have their own teams and they are an important source of cohesion for their communities. They also throw up gems: such as Gio Aplon, whose home town, Hawston, has a very active club.

But most need funds. A one-off injection, carefully invested, from the proceeds of the sale of the Newlands Stadium would surely be welcome.

Professional rugby in the Western Cape does not achieve anything like its real potential.

Given the talent at its disposal — some 46% of high schools play rugby — it should have a much fuller trophy cabinet than it does.

A fresh approach from new owners with cutting-edge management, financial and negotiating skills could make a world of difference. It would be critical, though, to get the right balance between running rugby as a business and, at the same time, keeping its soul.

The ownership model would need to be thought through and international examples explored.

But I’ve no doubt a model could be found that combined rugby excellence with the more elusive but equally important goal of nation building.

*This column first appeared in Business Day

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WESTERN Province Rugby Football Union released a startling statement a week before Christmas, which, predictably — and possibly, deliberately — was largely ignored because most people were already on holiday. The union announced that, at a special general meeting held the day before, it had been unanimously decided that they would not, after all, be […]

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Springboks, the cash cows flogged to support a bloated Saru

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NOW that the Springboks’ disappointing performance last month has been thoroughly picked over, perhaps it is time to look at the contribution of rugby’s off-field team to this demoralising episode and, hopefully, learn some lessons from it.

Last year, the Springboks played 12 games. This year, an extra two were loaded on to what was already a heavy schedule. In the last, disastrous Wales game on November 29, the Boks looked worn out, which was hardly surprising. Most of them had been playing one high-intensity, all-or-nothing game after another since Super Rugby began in February, 10 months earlier. The effect of this on their bodies was brought home by the devastating injury suffered by Jean de Villiers, whom Heyneke Meyer had days earlier identified as the one man critical to SA’s chances of winning the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

To add to the problems, the large squad felt messy: there were too many players brought along for the ride, never even getting a shot at warming the bench. There were too many black faces in this contingent not to suspect some window-dressing. But for all the passengers in the squad, both black and white, it must have been a disheartening experience.

There were questions as to why Meyer didn’t include more newcomers in his match-day squads, particularly against Italy. I think the answer lies with the off-field team.

The performance indicators in Meyer’s contract are all about winning every game. Development — racial or otherwise — will not win him a second term.

So, why did the South African Rugby Union (Saru) insist on the Boks adding on the Wales game to their schedule after the international Test window was over? The risks of this additional burden outweighed any advantage to the team.

Next year is the most important year in world rugby. Surely preparation for that should have been uppermost in everyone’s minds?

The Boks had already played Wales twice this year, so they were not gaining experience against a little-known opponent. Meyer had already had three games in which to test players’ ability to adapt to wet weather. The inevitable downside — the damage done to the Springbok brand and to team morale by a humiliating loss that will haunt them for another six months until they get a chance to redeem themselves — is huge.

The answer is money. Saru was reportedly paid £750,000 for the Wales game. When Jurie Roux, the CEO of Saru, announced that the two additional games — against the World XV in June and Wales in November — he said the extra income earned would go towards funding preparations for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Have the Springboks not already earned their keep, then? A look at Saru 2013 annual report shows its turnover for 2013 as just under R800m.

Almost of all Saru’s income is from two sources: sponsors — chief among them Absa — and the sale of broadcasting rights.

A mere R194m is allocated to “high performance”, the category that includes the Springboks, the Springbok Sevens and the Springbok Women’s team, and that sum is split among all three teams. So less than an eighth of Saru’s income goes to the team which attracts the bulk of it.

Springboks? Cash cows might be a more appropriate name. They are being flogged to the limit in order to keep afloat a bloated organisation.

My (very modest) New Year’s wishes for South African rugby are that:

• Saru transforms itself into a rational, streamlined, visionary organisation in which all its constituent parts forget self-interest and work together for the greater good of rugby;

• Saru sets the professionals free to get on with the business of producing world-beating teams that make all South Africans proud;

• The smaller unions and the clubs attached to the Super Rugby franchises stop living off the earnings of the professionals and dedicate themselves instead to semiprofessional and amateur rugby. They could have a huge role to play in restoring club rugby to its former glory — with all the concomitant benefits to the community — but for that to happen, they have to give up their pretensions of professionalism; and

• Saru and all its stakeholders think through what it means to be a flagship South African brand in 2015 and then formulate an effective policy to make it happen, starting from the top down. The Springbok coach needs to be contractually incentivised to select and develop a more racially diverse team, as do the Super Rugby coaches.

Saru should acknowledge that channelling development, particularly of black players, through its constituent unions does not work.

Saru should come up with a better plan for nurturing and promoting black rugby talent.

It is pointless waiting for the government to sort out education and school sport. Saru should take the lead.

*This column first appeared in Business Day

 

 

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NOW that the Springboks’ disappointing performance last month has been thoroughly picked over, perhaps it is time to look at the contribution of rugby’s off-field team to this demoralising episode and, hopefully, learn some lessons from it. Last year, the Springboks played 12 games. This year, an extra two were loaded on to what was […]

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All Bok games for 2015 RWC are sold out

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TICKETS for the 2015 Rugby World Cup will go on general sale tomorrow, but the bad news for South Africans is that every Springbok game is already sold out.

However, some of these tickets will have been block-booked by travel agents for hospitality packages and those that remain unsold will come back onto the market next autumn.

If you want to be guaranteed a ticket, you could opt for one of these packages now, but they are not cheap. SA Rugby Travel, for instance, are still offering packages to pool games and the knockout games.

But just going to the Springboks’ first pool game against Japan in Brighton on September 19 will cost almost R20,000 and to that you have to add airport taxes, which will probably bring it to about R26,000. That covers only the flight and ticket. You still have to fork out for accommodation and travel within the UK.

Packages include tickets to the “bronze final” (the match between the runners-up) and the final, which are going for about R40,000, including airport tax. Again, that is just for a match ticket and a flight.

Meanwhile, the team that will carry our hopes and dreams in September and October next year is being crystallised. This Saturday’s game against Wales will be Heyneke Meyer’s last chance to assess individual players’ capacity to adapt to playing in northern conditions. The contenders for several Rugby World Cup positions look pretty settled but, in others, the competition is still fierce.

Some World Cup veterans currently playing in Japan — including JP Pietersen and Fourie du Preez  — are expected to return to SA next year, which will guarantee them selection.

European-based players such as Francois Louw and Schalk Britz have an edge because they will be familiar with northern playing conditions and the way the laws are applied.

Next year, for the first time, Rugby World Cup squads have been expanded from 30 to 31 to include an extra prop. Judging on previous selections, this is likely to boil down to a 17/14 split between forwards and backs.

The squad will probably include two each in the loosehead and tighthead positions and three hookers. Five players are likely to be chosen to cover the three loose-forward positions.

There are several old-timers and newcomers who could do the numbers six, seven and eight jerseys proud and Meyer will find it hard to choose between them. These positions tend to carry a high attrition rate in terms of injury, so a player’s ability to switch between them would come in useful. Versatility is also important in the back line, which means utility backs are favoured.

Another position that requires plenty of back-up is scrum-half, and usually three are included in the squad.

If the 2015 Rugby World Cup 31 were to be chosen now, this is what it would probably look like:

Loosehead props: Tendai Mtawarira and Trevor Nyakane, the latter having earmarked a place after his performance against Italy’s Martin Castrogiovanni.

Hookers: Bismarck du Plessis; Adriaan Strauss and Schalk Britz, largely because of the latter’s experience in playing in the north.

Tighthead props: Jannie du Plessis and Coenie Oosthuizen, with Frans Malherbe as an outside contender.

Locks: Victor Matfield, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Flip van der Merwe and/or Pieter-Steph du Toit.

Loose-forwards:Incumbents are Francois Louw, Willem Alberts and Duane Vermeulen. But Schalk Burger, Marcell Coetzee, Teboho Mohoje, Nizaam Carr and Siya Kolisi are all serious contenders. Mohoje can also cover lock.

Scrumhalves: Fourie du Preez, Cobus Reinach and Francois Hougaard.

Flyhalves: Pat Lambie and Handre Pollard.

Left wings: Bryan Habana, Lwazi Mvovo/Seabelo Senatla.

Inside centres: Jean de Villiers, who has also proved himself over the past three years to be the best man to lead the team through the World Cup; and Damian de Allende.

Outside centres: Jaque Fourie and Jan Serfontein.

Right wing: JP Pietersen, and Cornal Hendricks.

Fullback: Willie le Roux and Johan Goosen.

Several of the back line players can cover a number of positions, which increases their value. For instance, JP Pietersen is both wing and centre. Lambie can cover both fly-half and fullback, as can Johan Goosen. Lwazi Mvovo can cover both No 11 and No 15.

Our four pool games are fairly easy. Japan first, which should be a doddle.

Then Samoa in Birmingham, which is dangerous in terms of brutal play. Scotland comes next and a passionate home crowd in the gutsy northern city of Newcastle could spur the Scots on.

And, finally, the US — mighty in the real world but a pushover on the rugby field.

On October 17 come the quarterfinals, when everything could change.

 

*This column first appeared in Business Day

 

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TICKETS for the 2015 Rugby World Cup will go on general sale tomorrow, but the bad news for South Africans is that every Springbok game is already sold out. However, some of these tickets will have been block-booked by travel agents for hospitality packages and those that remain unsold will come back onto the market […]

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Meyer’s clever off-field game

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Meyer, far left, with captain, Jean de Villiers and Sports Minister, Fikile Mbalula

Heyneke Meyer, far right, with captain, Jean de Villiers and Sports Minister, Fikile Mbalula

Heyneke Meyer boasts the highest winning percentage of any Bok coach — barring, of course, the full marks achieved in the very brief tenure of Kitch Christie almost 20 years ago.

But it is not this achievement that is likely to bring him the prize of being the first national coach to remain on the South African Rugby Union’s (Saru’s) books for more than four years. It is his exceptionally astute off-field game.

Coming from Pretoria, Meyer understands hierarchical structures, so he will have conducted his relations with his bosses with the necessary deference and ego-massaging, particularly the egos of self-important provincial presidents.

He will have done this from a position of knowing exactly what he wants out of them and negotiating hard to get it.

Another quality he would have gained as a Pretoria coach is toughness: a disappointed Bulls fan can be a nasty beast.

From the beginning, Meyer has, very politely, played hard ball with Saru.

Although the rugby bosses were desperate to see the back of Peter de Villiers when his contract expired at the end of 2011, they could not do so until they could announce a successor.

They rushed into their announcement of Meyer as the new coach at the end of January 2012, before he had signed off on his contract. Thus Saru made a public commitment to Meyer before he had made his to them.

This put him in a strong position and he was able to negotiate the appointment of a management team of his choice — a luxury denied his predecessors. He was able to take with him men he had appointed and nurtured over several years — all of whom had to be prised from their contracts with the Bulls, at great cost to Saru. The most important appointment was probably that of Ian Schwartz, the Bok manager, a calm, thoughtful man who is always one step ahead.

Meyer also refused to move to Cape Town, where he would inevitably have had to deal with Saru politics. Saru declined to give him an office in Pretoria.

So he conducts business from a coffee shop in a suburban mall. This modest setting reflects Meyer’s style and is replicated throughout his management team. They are, to a man, a likeable bunch: hard working, humble and friendly. And 100% loyal to their leader.

Meyer has been equally clever with the media. He understands that what journalists crave is the feeling of being an insider, privy to information and insights available to no one else. Partly, this sort of relationship suits Meyer’s personality: he is far better at one-on-one encounters than in more public settings. And, once he has established a relationship of trust, he is remarkably open and honest.

The results are extraordinary: in his first year as Bok coach, Meyer was subjected to much the same sort of public vilification that De Villiers endured throughout his four-year tenure.

Everything he did was criticised: his continuing support for Morne Steyn in the face of erratic form; his appointment of an all-Bulls management team and his preference for Bulls players; his Bulls-honed kick-and-chase game.

Meyer, an emotional man, was openly upset by this and took steps to address it. Unlike De Villiers, who responded with defiance, Meyer engaged with journalists. He listened to critics.

The result, two years later, is sweetness and light. He is hardly ever subjected to criticism and, when he is, it is more likely to be of the constructive kind.

This attitude tends to be emulated by the public and on social media.

Meyer’s ability to adjust public opinion like this is a huge achievement. Every mistake he and his team make is visible to millions of avid stakeholders.

His performance could not be more transparent. Being able to take fans along with him says a lot for his branding talents. Even shocking failures like the loss to Ireland last week failed to evoke the kind of vitriol he encountered in his first year and which De Villiers endured.

Meyer’s other success has been with the provincial coaches: no other Springbok coach has succeeded in persuading the provinces to rest their Boks during the last few games of the Currie Cup.

This, too, is the fruit of much diplomacy and effort. The coach has worked hard to cultivate a good relationship with the Super 15 coaches.

Saru says it has been talking to Meyer about extending his contract. Anything could happen in the next year but it seems likely that, for the first time, the institutional knowledge built up by a Bok coach over four years will not be tossed away.

*This column first appeared in Business Day

 

 

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Heyneke Meyer boasts the highest winning percentage of any Bok coach — barring, of course, the full marks achieved in the very brief tenure of Kitch Christie almost 20 years ago. But it is not this achievement that is likely to bring him the prize of being the first national coach to remain on the […]

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