Posts Tagged ‘super rugby’

If transformation goes any slower, it will go backwards

News | Non Fiction | South Africa Comments Off

I TAKE my hat off to the seven Springboks who went to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) with their concerns about transformation. It takes a lot of courage to do that from within the ranks of rugby.

Usually players speak out only after they have finished with the game because they know that if they do so while within it, they can say goodbye to their careers. Already a witch-hunt for names has started.

I hope Cosatu can protect them. But I hope too that the South African Rugby Players’ Association gets on board. So far, at least in public, its response has been muted, apparently going along with the South African Rugby Union’s (Saru’s) assurances.

It should take note of the fact that black players did not feel able to go to it with their concerns.

Saru’s response to the players was to restate its position. “Saru recently signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the government and Sascoc (South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee) on a strategic transformation plan for rugby. Our focus now is on delivering on our understanding with them and we will continue to engage with sports leadership in the country on our progress.”

A closer look at this transformation plan reveals that it is already showing cracks. It says the principal objective in this World Cup year is to: “Engage (the) national coach to increase black player representation to 30% (seven players in a squad of 23). From the seven generic black players two must be black Africans.”

The four-year aim of the plan, which is timeline-based with interim targets, is to “increase black participation in the Springbok team to 50% by 2019″.

At Kings Park on Saturday, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and Bryan Habana were yet again trotted out as the sole representatives of black South African rugby talent. On the bench were Trevor Nyakane, Siya Kolisi and Lwazi Mvovo, meaning exactly five black players in the match-day squad, as there have been in each of the Tests this year.

Even after the Cosatu intervention and for a relatively meaningless non-Test game against Argentina this Saturday, there are still only five black players in the match-day 23.

Scarra Ntubeni, who was the best hooker in South African Super Rugby this year, has not even made the bench this season and has clearly been usurped as third-choice hooker by Schalk Britz. Elton Jantjies, the in-form Super Rugby flyhalf, has also been sidelined.

If our promising young black players are not being given regular game time at this level now, the next target — 50% of black Springboks by 2019 — also looks like a chimera.

I have heard complaints about marginalisation from black players for years, at provincial and national level. If the strategic transformation plan were effective, marginalisation should be a thing of the past.

We have not heard any protest from Saru president Oregan Hoskins about the breach of the plan’s targets in the Springbok teams. Nor from Saru CEO Jurie Roux.

Is there an intention to monitor its implementation? Will failure to meet targets incur meaningful sanctions? And, if so, will there be transparency about the process?

When the plan was launched earlier this year there was much talk of a brave new world in rugby. Hoskins talked of “a watershed moment for our sport”. Roux said: “Transformation is a critical business imperative in SA and if we had not taken this new approach to what had been an organic process up until recently, we would have put our sport in peril of becoming marginalised.”

So far, there is little evidence of establishment push behind this “new approach”.

Saru has just announced it is cutting funding to three of the four academies set up to produce black high-performance talent. This will further narrow the pipeline for emerging stars.

The poor attendance at Kings Park last week — despite the fact that it was a Test in a Rugby World Cup year — speaks to the failure to spread the game beyond the white minority. The paucity of black rugby heroes on the field means fewer black people are drawn to attend games.

Accounts of racist abuse by some fans at Ellis Park the week before were inadequately dealt with by the authorities, which hardly makes black fans feel safe and welcome. And the cost of tickets puts the game beyond the reach of most South Africans.

In the coaching structures there appears to have been minimal transformation. There is not one black head coach in any of the significant teams: Springboks, Sevens, under-20 or Super Rugby.

Saru can get away with being opaque and high-handed because it is accountable to no one but itself.

But I was surprised by recent tweets from Sport Minister Fikile Mbalula: “Full transformation not gonna emerge over night bcos we are going to WC (World Cup).”

Perhaps the minister, who has previously been strongly proactive in his demands for transformation, knows something I don’t. I can only imagine this must be the case because he will be fully alive to the anger coursing through social media from fans who feel that if transformation goes any slower it will go backwards.

 *This column first appeared in Business Day
Kindle ItShare

I TAKE my hat off to the seven Springboks who went to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) with their concerns about transformation. It takes a lot of courage to do that from within the ranks of rugby. Usually players speak out only after they have finished with the game because they know […]

Kindle ItShare

‘I weep for the black boys who were never given a chance’

News | Non Fiction | South Africa | Uncategorized Comments Off
Motherwell High School first team

Motherwell High School team

IN A bizarre move, the South African Rugby Union (Saru) has decided to withdraw funding for its academy in Port Elizabeth. It is one of four academies set up with great fanfare in 2013 with Lotto money in areas with substantial black rugby talent.

For the past two years, Saru has funded them. From next year, it will fund only the East London academy.

I spent last week in the Eastern Cape doing research for a film on transformation in rugby.

It rapidly became apparent that the Southern Kings are going to have difficulty fielding a credible Super Rugby team next year, never mind one that fulfils its promise of showcasing local black talent.

The Southern Kings team that lost to Western Province in a preseason Currie Cup friendly on Saturday was largely white and featured several players who have already been recycled through other unions.

The only bright spot for the Southern Kings on Saturday was their Under-19s, the one team to beat their Western Province counterparts. This is their third victory in a row. They have already won their games against the Cheetahs and the Bulls. Around half the Southern Kings under-19s team consists of black boys recruited from Eastern Cape schools and they are coached by a local player, former Sevens captain Mzwandile Stick.

The under-19s are products of the academy about to be cut adrift by Saru. There seems little hope of the Southern Kings taking up the slack. They are themselves in financial difficulties, unable to pay their players’ salaries for the past month.

It would be mortifying for SA if the Southern Kings’ Super Rugby venture were to be allowed to fail. Failure would partly be defined as fielding yet another team of largely white players bought in from elsewhere.

The bloated, 18-team version of Super Rugby that comes into being next year was created largely to accommodate their long-term inclusion. The reason Saru pushed so hard for it was to boost black rugby by giving the Eastern Cape its own team in the most competitive competition in world rugby.

They were right to do so. Not only will a successful Super Rugby team hugely strengthen black rugby but it will also limit the buying up of black players from the region by other franchises. If these players can achieve their dreams of making a Super Rugby or Springbok team in their own province, they will stay at home, where they will be a lot better off.

Speaking to rugby people in the Eastern Cape last week, I realised just how profound and widespread is the conviction that black players are deliberately excluded from professional teams. I was repeatedly given examples, for instance, of black players who could have shone in the place of some of the current Springboks incumbents.

“I have no problem with the white boys in the team,” said one. “They have worked very hard to get where they are. But I weep for the black boys who were never given the chance.”

Poverty and inequality are major culprits in keeping our teams white. For instance, a rugby coach at a mainly black former Model C school in Grahamstown said when his boys ran onto the field for practice at 3.30pm, he was very aware that they had been up since 4am for the long walk from township to school and that, in between, all they had had to eat was two slices of bread.

The same coach had been in charge of the Port Elizabeth Country Districts’ Craven Week squad the year before. He said the players had missed four meals before their first game because they weren’t given a travel allowance. This, before competing with players from some of the richest schools in the country.

But, on this trip, I also heard another view equally powerfully expressed: that, in fact, plenty of middle-class black boys were now also at good schools where they benefited from the same nutrition, education and sports facilities as white boys. And yet they were still not making it into professional teams.

These men I spoke to — intelligent, reasonable, passionate rugby fans — were adamant: a racial and cultural bias in mainstream rugby meant black boys were simply not being considered by a great number of white coaches.

In another development, it was reported at the weekend that the Super Rugby franchises are refusing to approve the allocation of broadcasting funds proposed for next year when the new deal kicks in. The proposal is to give the Super Rugby franchises R25m each a year and the eight small unions R15m. The big unions are balking at the share claimed by the other eight.

I hope the Super Rugby franchises stick to their guns. But I also hope this rebellion is part of a more ambitious plan to transform Saru so that it is better suited to serve South African rugby as a whole. The success or otherwise of the Southern Kings could be a litmus test of this.

The Southern Kings are clearly in need of help. I was told that, during Alan Solomons’s tenure as coach during the Kings’ first abortive Super Rugby stint, he established a clear progression path for players from under-19s to the senior team. In the succession of coaches who have followed him, this has been lost. As a result, the all-important development path for local players is interrupted.

Saru head office, which has until now so capably run the Eastern Cape academies, needs to take a more central role in the Eastern Cape. A hands-off attitude is not good enough. Cash that has been frittered away on professional teams run by the small unions should be diverted to development. Saru should not only continue to fund the Port Elizabeth Academy, but should expand it and establish others.

Anything less might make the allocation of a Super Rugby franchise to a black rugby-rich region look like a cynical gesture, setting them up to fail.

*This column first appeared in Business Day

 

 

 

Kindle ItShare

IN A bizarre move, the South African Rugby Union (Saru) has decided to withdraw funding for its academy in Port Elizabeth. It is one of four academies set up with great fanfare in 2013 with Lotto money in areas with substantial black rugby talent. For the past two years, Saru has funded them. From next […]

Kindle ItShare

It’s time to tackle inequality

News | Non Fiction | South Africa Comments Off

WHENEVER I write about race in rugby, I have to brace myself for some particularly nasty hate mail. Suitably braced, here goes.

The recent commemoration of the 1995 Rugby World Cup pretty much summed up rugby’s transformation record in the intervening two decades — lots of glossy, feel-good stuff that tried but failed to smother the elephant in the room: that, 20 years on, a quota system is still required to ensure there are more than a couple of black players in the Springbok team.

One of the main reasons the South African Rugby Union has failed to develop black players in large numbers is that they rely almost exclusively on the 40-odd rugby specialist schools to produce players. These schools are mostly private or former Model C schools. All are based in areas that are still mostly white and therefore attract mostly white pupils. This cements the racial status quo in rugby and intensifies the inequality of opportunity for black children who want to make it to the top.

If Saru had responded appropriately to Nelson Mandela’s challenge in 1995, it would have directed a large proportion of the TV money brought in by the launch of professionalism the following year to developing rugby in targeted schools in black areas.

What is puzzling is that it is still not being done. Ever more ambitious quotas are being set for high-profile teams such as the Springboks but there is no concomitant strategy to give more black players a proper shot at achieving at this level. Saru has set up a couple of academies in the Eastern Cape but they serve a tiny minority of players.

The levels of inequality in SA remain stubbornly high. More middle-class black kids are going to richer schools but the vast majority of black children are in poorer state schools. Few have decent sporting facilities.

Waiting for the government to sort this out is not an option. But, given the will, rugby can make a difference. The obstacle is Saru’s love affair with professionalism.

Each of the 14 unions insists on its rights to field professional teams. This means that, in little towns all over the country, unions are pumping millions of rand into the maintenance of stadiums and salary packets for administrators, coaches, medical teams and squads of players. There is very little left over for development.

Most of the players they contract have been developed by the rugby schools. The same players are then recycled between different unions. The unions themselves do not have to pay for their development. The schools provide that, subsidised by parents and old boys. These are drawn mostly from communities who have a decades-long head start on the accumulation of social and financial capital.

If the French economist Thomas Piketty is right, the imbalance between them and communities who were prevented from accruing capital during apartheid will not change soon.

If Saru is serious about meeting its transformation targets, it might be wise to adopt a model that is better suited to a developing country. Professionalism could be confined to the Super Rugby franchises. They could focus on maintaining a globally competitive layer of players to feed the Springbok and Super Rugby teams.

A substantial portion of Saru’s income should be going into clubs and schools, particularly the black rugby schools in the Eastern Cape.

Now they get nothing from either Saru or the government to develop their rugby talent, and we wonder why, 20 years on from the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the team at the top is still mostly white.

Saru’s contribution is to dust off those hazy memories — which really just serve to remind us of a promise unfulfilled — to invoke rugby as nation-builder.

The teams fielded in Super Rugby this year were, as could be expected, mostly white. Except for the best local team in Super Rugby: the Stormers.

At around the same time that the class of ’95 were being celebrated, SA was waving goodbye to Allister Coetzee.

Coetzee, who routinely fielded 10 black players, dismisses talk of quotas and transformation charters as “utter rubbish”. He has a sophisticated understanding of race dynamics — born of his own experience of racism as an apartheid-era player and that of having to meld a racially diverse team in the cauldron of high-performance rugby.

One can’t pretend race doesn’t exist, he says.

What you have to do is to try to understand where each player is coming from: the white boy from Constantia or Bellville; the African boy from Khayelitsha; the coloured guy from Hawston.

To get the best out of each boy, a coach must work out what his triggers are.

That means making the effort to understand the player’s circumstances.

The coach who expects every boy to conform to his own cultural norms is never going to be able to successfully field a racially diverse team.

This does not mean the coach has to be black: an open-minded white coach prepared to venture out of his tribal comfort zone could also do it.

Critical for Coetzee is to provide role models. If a boy in Khayelitsha sees Siya Kolisi in a Stormers or Springbok jersey, he can see himself in one too. As long as “he is prepared to work his butt off and realise that it is about equal opportunity”, he too can make it.

In other words, don’t even think about making it on the back of a quota.

 *This column first appeared in Business Day
Kindle ItShare

WHENEVER I write about race in rugby, I have to brace myself for some particularly nasty hate mail. Suitably braced, here goes. The recent commemoration of the 1995 Rugby World Cup pretty much summed up rugby’s transformation record in the intervening two decades — lots of glossy, feel-good stuff that tried but failed to smother […]

Kindle ItShare

The rebirth of a Bok legend

News | Non Fiction | South Africa | Uncategorized Comments Off

IT IS a career trajectory that would work in almost any profession. Start off with a full-time job where you can gain skills, experience and contacts.

And, important, become familiar with the ecosystem in your particular field. Then, when you tire of having your prospects determined by the whims of a boss, you develop your own vision for your career and set about making it happen.

In rugby, the process starts earlier and is more compressed.

Take Fourie du Preez, for instance. He was recruited by Heyneke Meyer while still at Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool and joined the Bulls as a contracted player as soon as he had matriculated.

Du Preez was a founding member of the killer squad, handpicked and moulded by Meyer, which went on to win the Currie Cup for three consecutive years and, in 2007, became the first South African team to bring home the Super Rugby trophy. Later that year, the same Bulls core helped the Springboks to their second Rugby World Cup victory under Jake White.

Two years later, Du Preez was key to one of the best ever years for a Springbok team. In 2009, they first beat the British and Irish Lions and, then the All Blacks. Not once but three times.

But, after a long golden run in terms of injuries, Du Preez finally succumbed. In 2010, he had surgery for a shoulder injury, followed by six months of rehab.

No sooner was he back on the field in 2011 than he injured his knee in a Super Rugby game.

And then, of course, he was part of the Springbok team which was ejected so ignominiously from the Rugby World Cup in 2011.

Despite the fact that he was only 30 and widely considered the best scrumhalf in the world, Du Preez turned his back on international rugby and settled for the relative obscurity of Japanese club rugby.

It was a bold move for a man who had never lived anywhere but Pretoria. But he was burnt out from the emotional and physical toll of having played 80 minutes in a pivotal position of almost every Currie Cup, Super Rugby and Springbok game for 10 years.

If it wasn’t for Japan, he says, he might have stopped playing rugby altogether after the 2011 World Cup.

Not only has his stint at Suntory Goliath taught him a new approach to the game, being immersed in a foreign culture has revitalised him.

Simple things, such as using public transport to get to training, delight him, as does the equilibrium he has managed to achieve between work and family.

Most of his teammates at Suntory Goliath have other jobs at the company so rugby is confined to half the day. Du Preez says he has learnt from this that it is entirely possible to balance professional rugby with study and family.

These days many players are taking a more entrepreneurial approach to their careers. They mix and match clubs and countries: they play Super Rugby but eschew Currie Cup, opting instead to spend the South African summer playing in Europe or Japan.

This means they are available for selection for some Springbok games.

Where Du Preez has broken the mould is that he won’t even play Super Rugby. He told me that one of his chief reasons for leaving SA was Super Rugby, with its punishing toll on players’ bodies and the endless travel. For most players, this would be a risky move — after all, Super Rugby is the parade ground where players hope to catch the eye of the Springbok coach. But Du Preez is experienced and confident enough to know he can get away with it and still make it into the Bok squad. In fact, judging by the injury list at the Springbok camp a few weeks ago, it is a wise move.

Anyone playing Super Rugby now could break down with a long term injury which could rule them out of the World Cup.

Luck is on his side in that no one has emerged to seriously challenge him for the scrumhalf berth. Even if there had, it is unlikely Meyer would have gone to the UK without one of his most trusted proteges.

The Japanese season runs from September to the end of February. Du Preez told me that, since 2013, he has been returning to SA for our winter months and following his own training and conditioning routine.

He has been doing rehab for an ankle injury and cross-training in a private gym three times a week. Soon his routine will include speed training and contact fitness and possibly a few games with the Bulls’ under-21s.

His regimen was worked out by specialists in Japan. He makes it clear that he has moved on from what he learnt at the Bulls. Du Preez is honing and refining his game. With the new nimbleness in his approach to life, we can expect Du Preez to add a layer of sophistication to the Springbok game.

Because there is no doubt that this is where he is headed. Heyneke Meyer has made it clear Du Preez is part of his plans for the World Cup. He will be integrated into the squad during the Rugby Championships and hopefully be at peak game fitness during the key World Cup games.

Unlike most of the rest of the team, who will be worn out by months of Super Rugby, Du Preez will be fresh and fit.

*This column first appeared in Business Day

 

Kindle ItShare

IT IS a career trajectory that would work in almost any profession. Start off with a full-time job where you can gain skills, experience and contacts. And, important, become familiar with the ecosystem in your particular field. Then, when you tire of having your prospects determined by the whims of a boss, you develop your […]

Kindle ItShare

Play now, pay later

News | Non Fiction | South Africa | Uncategorized Comments Off

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
Kindle ItShare

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 […]

Kindle ItShare

Springboks, the cash cows flogged to support a bloated Saru

News | Non Fiction | South Africa | Uncategorized Comments Off

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

 

 

Kindle ItShare

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 […]

Kindle ItShare

Empty seats packed with meaning

News | Non Fiction | South Africa | Uncategorized Comments Off

ONE of the overriding images of the pool stages of 2014 Currie Cup — now reaching its climax with semifinals this weekend — is of empty stadiums. Often the rugby played is exciting and SuperSport does its bit with ever-enthusiastic commentary, but there are few takers. These are local teams playing at local stadiums, yet local fans cannot be bothered to get themselves there to watch.

It must be dispiriting for the players on the field witnessed only by the blank gaze of row upon row of empty seats. The most spectacular tries are rewarded only by a smattering of applause, all that can be mustered by the few fans present. The fantasy of legions of fanatically loyal local fans, ostensibly the bedrock of provincial rugby and a major justification for its existence, is exposed as just that. Nor are many watching the Currie Cup on TV — viewing figures are substantially down.

It is hugely expensive to stage these games. Stadiums must be maintained, a phalanx of staff must be paid for on game days including referees, medical teams, ticket collectors, ushers and security guards. Teams must be flown around the country and put up in hotels.

It raises the question: can rugby afford it? And, even if it can, would the millions spent not be better spent elsewhere? The fact that the Premiership Division of the Currie Cup has been extended to buy off small unions so that they would agree to the inclusion of the Southern Kings in Super Rugby (more Currie Cup and more Super Rugby) has not helped matters.

The Currie Cup has historically occupied a special place in the collective heart of the rugby community: during the isolation years, it was the competition that kept local white rugby alive. Provincial unions had to work hard to keep their fan base on board because it was turnstile traffic that kept them financially afloat.

But the professional era — now almost 20 years old — changed all that. The provincial unions now rely on their share of the SuperSport income to keep the game going. There is little incentive to spread the game locally because the money will keep on rolling in, no matter how ineffectual they are.

Crowds at the First Division games — those played in Welkom, Wellington, Potchefstroom, George, Kimberley and East London — are particularly sparse.

One of the arguments used to justify the continued funding of the smaller unions is that they unearth talent that would otherwise go unnoticed. But this happens so seldom — and at such a cost to the rugby fiscus — that it hardly seems worth the outlay. And what this argument ignores is that it is the rugby schools that unearth and nurture rugby talent. The unions just piggyback on it.

The top Currie Cup layer — the Premiership — plays a more viable role because it provides a platform for the blooding of younger players before promotion to Super Rugby.

Serious questions should be asked about the First Division’s viability as a professional league. Although the bottom line  is that no matter how irrational and wasteful the current system is, it will not change because the 14 unions have entrenched their rights in a constitution only they can change.

But reform may yet be forced upon them from within their own ranks. The Super Rugby franchises are growing increasingly frustrated with the current division of spoils. It is the Springbok games that command by far the highest TV audiences. The Springboks’ main base are the Super Rugby franchises they are contracted to and who pay the bulk of their salaries. And this is not insubstantial: top Boks command R4m at some franchises.

The current distribution of the joint South African Rugby Union pot of about R700m does not give the Super Rugby franchises anywhere near enough to meet their financial obligations. Yet their Boks are only available to the franchises for the first half of the year.

This year, for the first time, 20 key Springboks are not available for the Currie Cup play-offs because they are being rested and conditioned for the upcoming November Tests. But if they are injured during the Tests, it is their franchises who will lose out when Super Rugby starts.

Surely those empty seats should constitute some sort of a wake-up call?

*This column first appeared in Business Day

 

Kindle ItShare

ONE of the overriding images of the pool stages of 2014 Currie Cup — now reaching its climax with semifinals this weekend — is of empty stadiums. Often the rugby played is exciting and SuperSport does its bit with ever-enthusiastic commentary, but there are few takers. These are local teams playing at local stadiums, yet […]

Kindle ItShare

SACS takes on KES

News | Non Fiction | South Africa Comments Off

SIMMERING hostility over the poaching of schoolboy rugby talent has finally broken out into open warfare. The South African College School (Sacs), one of the oldest and best boys state schools in the country, has cut all ties with another venerable educational institution, King Edward High School (KES) in Johannesburg. Sacs’ rugby, water polo, cricket and hockey teams will no longer play against KES teams. What precipitated this dramatic gesture was the fact that Sacs arrived at the St Stithians Easter Rugby Festival last month with a squad of 23 boys and left with 22. One of their grade 10 black pupils is now a KES boy. It is suspected that the boy was offered a scholarship to persuade him to switch schools.

The top 24 state boys schools agreed just a few months ago on a sports charter “born of the concern that some of the high-profile sports at our schools are increasingly being driven by noneducational imperatives and affected by questionable (unethical) practices”. The charter rejected the practice of “approaching and offering money to boys to allow or encourage them to switch schools”.

It was agreed that scholarships and bursaries should be offered for academic achievement and financial need respectively, and should ideally be offered only in grade 8.

The charter follows a much angrier response on www.saschoolsports.co.za from Eastern Cape headmasters after last year’s Grant Khomo Week trials for under-16s, a popular hunting ground for talent scouts. At least Sacs and KES are fairly equal. This is not the case for Eastern Cape state schools, the country’s chief incubators of black rugby talent and largely based in much poorer communities.

The headmasters of Dale College, Queens College, Selborne and Hudson Park High School weighed in. Roy Hewett, headmaster of the last-mentioned school, was the most scathing: “Young men are approached in a clandestine way either at, or shortly after, the Grant Khomo Week. They are made financial offers which include free schooling, all expenses paid, clothing and a significant monthly payment, for a contractual commitment to the franchise in question. They are strongly encouraged to keep the knowledge of these negotiations from their schools and often disappear during the third-term break.”

These headmasters argue that the practice impoverishes their schools — they and their coaches have nurtured these boys for many years.

The boys have developed strong loyalties to the school: they are part of a healthy ecosystem in which sporting prowess is only part of their development. Academic achievement and character building are equally important. As rugby stars, these boys are regarded as heroes by their peers and provide inspiration and mentorship to younger boys.

Usually it is the Super Rugby franchises that initiate and fund the transfers. They place boys in stronger rugby schools in Pretoria or Durban. Sometimes, rich schools by promising players to boost their first teams or their quota of black players.

One could argue that these boys are being given a chance to move up in life: a life-changing opportunity for a better education and new networks that could enhance their career prospects.

Too often, though, it does not work out this way.

Frequently the transfer happens in grade 11 because schools don’t want to be saddled with a boy who then doesn’t perform, so they snaffle him to provide the X factor for their first teams in the last two years of school. The boys face hostility from other pupils because they are given a place in the team over others who have worked for it throughout their school career.

Being catapulted into a new school, particularly a largely white, much richer school, for the last two years of one’s school career is bound to be disorienting. The pupil will have been separated from family, community and culture.

And because he has been admitted to this institution purely to boost the rugby team, if he doesn’t perform, he is made to feel a failure.

This cynical use of young boys speaks to the power of rugby. A school whose first team performs well at rugby is considered a good school, regardless of other weaknesses. Parents with resources flock to such schools. Old boys open their wallets more eagerly. Greater resources mean schools can employ more teachers than the government will pay for, which means smaller classes and more individual attention. They can afford playing fields, libraries, computer labs and swimming pools.

Even if a black boy achieves his dream with an under-19 contract at one of the franchises, how far will he get? The racial composition of our elite teams does not bode well.

There is only one black South African Springbok with a regular starting position — Siya Kolisi. Super Rugby teams are overwhelmingly white. This year’s introduction of racial quotas for the lower rung of professional rugby, the Vodacom Cup, shows how many Saru unions have to be forced into giving their black players a proper opportunity.

The increase in tension between schools is regrettable but hopefully will result in the issue being properly addressed.

 

*This column first appeared in Business Day

Kindle ItShare

SIMMERING hostility over the poaching of schoolboy rugby talent has finally broken out into open warfare. The South African College School (Sacs), one of the oldest and best boys state schools in the country, has cut all ties with another venerable educational institution, King Edward High School (KES) in Johannesburg. Sacs’ rugby, water polo, cricket […]

Kindle ItShare

Sharks show the way

News | Non Fiction | South Africa Comments Off

IMG_1144THE Sharks’ dominance of the Super Rugby charts is a fine example of how a dynamic and visionary administration plays out on the field. Take, for instance, their response to the introduction earlier this year of racial quotas into the Vodacom Cup. Rugby’s protectionist right threw up their hands in horror. In contrast, the Sharks not only embraced the challenge but actually exceeded the quota stipulated by the South African Rugby Union (Saru): their Vodacom Cup squad featured six African players.

But it is in their high-flying Super Rugby team that their more progressive attitude has been most obvious. Where other franchises persist in relegating their black players to the wings or the bench, the Sharks are playing young S’bura Sithole at outside centre and have backed him in that crucial position throughout the season. Lwazi Mvovo is at fullback and Tera Mthembu is a second-choice looseforward. Cynics speculate that Jake White wants the Springbok coach job again, and he knows on which side the political slice is buttered.

I suspect the influence of Sharks CEO John Smit. Black Springboks I interviewed during his era as Springbok captain spoke glowingly of his support and his sensitivity to the debilitating effects of marginalisation. Black players in some of the leading franchises felt that they had to add prejudice to the many challenges faced by any professional player to get to the top.

One hopes now, at the Sharks at least, their path will be easier. One hopes too, the other franchises will take note. Until Super Rugby franchises give more black players a proper chance, the Springboks will remain largely white, because it is from the Super Rugby teams that the Springbok coach must pick his squad.

Apart from the fact that it is the right thing to do, giving black players a proper shot at the big-time pays off.

I suspect here the hand of the chairman of the Sharks board, Stephen Saad.

Saad is an astute, socially aware entrepreneur who saw the potential for generic medicines while the rest of South Africa was still in the extortionate grip of Big Pharma. Now his company, Aspen Pharmacare, produces life-saving antiretroviral drugs at a fraction of the price once demanded by the international pharmaceutical industry.

Saad’s combination of business savvy and love of rugby is good for the commercial side of the Sharks. Their brand, already strong, can only be enhanced by the nurturing of more black stars. It is the black middle class that offers the best opportunity for explosive economic growth. Look at the Orlando Pirates or Kaizer Chiefs: their popularity means an endless supply of brands wanting to be allied with theirs, and prepared to pay handsomely for it.

The more the Sharks reflect the broader South African demographic, the more likely they are able to access sponsorship, which in turns means better facilities and better pay for their players.

It would also suit SuperSport, which has a substantial shareholding in Sharks (Pty) Ltd. MultiChoice, owner of SuperSport, is seeing its most dramatic growth in the black middle class.

Currently, SuperSport’s largest customer base is among white people over the age of 50, a wealthy segment of the population, but a dwindling one.

What’s more, if the Sharks were able to attract more black fans, they might be able to fill the many empty seats in the Kings Park Stadium.

On a different, but allied note, that excellent Saru innovation, the Springbok Experience, is looking for a Cup. In fact, two Cups: the Zonk Cup and Parton’s Cup.

Parton’s Cup was one of the trophies awarded in the inter-provincial league run by the South African Bantu Rugby Board (SABRB), formed in 1935. The league, which culminated in the awarding of the NRC Cup (Native Recruiting Corporation Cup), was sponsored by the Chamber of Mines.

The Springbok Experience, at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, has done a very good job of presenting black and white rugby history, both separately and together. To complete the picture, Andy Colquhoun, Saru’s head of corporate affairs, is keen to add these two iconic cups because they represent the strong pre-apartheid rugby culture. Prof Andre Odendaal, historian, and until this month CEO of Western Province Cricket, writes that the first SABRB inter-provincial league was held in Kimberley in 1936, when the inaugural NRC Cup was shared by Eastern Province and Transvaal. This was the first of 28 inter-provincial rugby tournaments to be held over the next 38 years up to 1974. These tournaments involved a grinding schedule of matches over a period of one week, records Odendaal, particularly after a knock-out competition for the Parton’s Cup was added to the league format for the NRC Cup.

So, anyone out there with either of these Cups in their display cabinet should please get in touch with Colquhoun. They have a wonderful piece of rugby history in their hands.

Kindle ItShare

THE Sharks’ dominance of the Super Rugby charts is a fine example of how a dynamic and visionary administration plays out on the field. Take, for instance, their response to the introduction earlier this year of racial quotas into the Vodacom Cup. Rugby’s protectionist right threw up their hands in horror. In contrast, the Sharks […]

Kindle ItShare

Let the experts run rugby

Non Fiction | South Africa | Uncategorized Comments Off

FRIDAY’S annual general meeting of the South African Rugby Union (Saru) was a surreal experience for a journalist. It comes across as a harmonious, well-ordered affair, with the presidents and vice-presidents of each of the 14 member unions — plus the 13-strong executive council — in their crisp white shirts and green Saru ties seated in a large rectangle in a conference room in Newlands Southern Sun hotel.

Important and potentially controversial elections — including that of Saru president, vice-president, deputy president and two executive council members — were conducted in near unanimity. The annual report, which recorded how Saru’s R800m income was spent, was approved without a murmur of dissent.

The only indication of the months of feverish schlentering and deal-making that preceded this polished performance was that it started uncharacteristically late, waiting for the emergence of small groups of flustered-looking men from various corners of the hotel. Some of the deal-making was clearly very last-minute indeed.

So Oregan Hoskins was unanimously awarded an unprecedented third term as Saru president; Mark Alexander will stay on as deputy and James Stofberg as vice-president. The candidates to two vacant executive council positions were elected unopposed.

The off-the-record briefing to justify this was that Hoskins needs to retain his presidency in order to keep his position on the International Rugby Board (IRB) and it is good for South Africa to have our man at the IRB, especially when it comes to bidding for the next available Rugby World Cup hosting opportunity — in 2023.

Mark Alexander needed to stay on because Saru is at a crucial phase in its negotiations with New Zealand and Australia over the make-up of the next five-year Super Rugby/Rugby Championships deal, which kicks off in 2016. Overall, the message was: continuity is good.

All of this is probably true but, given the level to which parochial self-interest underlies most of the decisions taken here, trade-offs were more likely to have been the clincher. Lucrative Test matches offered in exchange for electoral support, for instance.

Given that many of these men have been engaging in musical chairs for years, it was good to see an injection of new blood in the form of Border Union president Phumlani Mkolo. Aged 36 and the only black African president, he at least represents the average South African, unlike the middle-aged, paler-skinned old boys’ club which still dominates this, Saru’s highest body.

Merit is rarely a factor. One wouldn’t entrust a primary school netball team to some members of the executive council, never mind a globally competitive team.

Nevertheless, it is worth attending these meetings because they include some of rugby’s top power-brokers, and private conversations with the sharper among them confirm the powerful undercurrents swirling beneath the apparently serene surface.

For instance, some of the bigger unions’ impatience at the absurd amount of power wielded by the smaller unions, and the inefficiency and waste of resources that results. Each of the 14 unions now gets a minimum of close to R10m a year from Saru, which the small unions waste on bragging rights to their own professional teams.

Meanwhile, we can’t afford to pay our real athletes properly so we lose them to Japan and France and thus undermine the Springboks and the Super Rugby teams.

It is worth stating yet again how pernicious the Saru constitution is. Weighted in favour of the small unions, this guarantees each of them equal voting rights to the big, effective unions. It results in this splintering of power, undermining the efficacy of South African rugby as a whole.

The problem is that Saru is answerable only to the IRB. The government can intervene but its solution does not seem to be particularly workable either.

They are proposing that all sports codes, including rugby, align their administrative structures with the geopolitical provinces. This would entail cutting the Saru unions from 14 to nine. But it would still mean that provinces where barely any rugby is played, such as Limpopo and North West, would have the same clout as the Western Cape and Eastern Cape, where an overwhelming proportion of the country’s rugby is played.

The government’s argument is that these provincial structures would then be responsible for spreading the game within their regions. This would be great if feasible but all evidence points to the contrary. There is no consistent, effective sports programmes in state schools — neither of the Departments of Education nor Sport and Recreation have been able to get this together.

We have to be pragmatic about this and work with what works. In rugby, development is all but confined to the traditional schools, namely the 143 that have produced the vast majority of Springboks since 1992. If we want to boast the best rugby team in the world, we must let the professionals do their job. The answer is to cut out the small unions and eradicate the power of amateur clubs over professional rugby.

Last Friday’s meeting should be the last time we see this flabby body representing South African rugby.

• McGregor is author of Springbok Factory: What it takes to be a Bok

PEOPLE WHO READ THIS ALSO READ THESE

Kindle ItShare

FRIDAY’S annual general meeting of the South African Rugby Union (Saru) was a surreal experience for a journalist. It comes across as a harmonious, well-ordered affair, with the presidents and vice-presidents of each of the 14 member unions — plus the 13-strong executive council — in their crisp white shirts and green Saru ties seated […]

Kindle ItShare