Dream on, Western Province

Gavin Rich

The reference to Liverpool’s magnificent recovery in their UEFA Champions league semi-final tie against Barcelona in a press release issued by the Board of Western Province Rugby at the weekend got the mind ticking and cannot pass without comment.

“We have seen some inspirational stories in the UEFA Champions league in recent weeks, with both Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur producing epic comebacks which show what is achievable if all stakeholders are aligned.”

The words were those of WP Rugby Group CEO Paul Zacks. I am a Liverpool supporter and would agree with Zacks that they are an example of what can be achieved when all stakeholders are aligned. We are on the same page when it comes to the need for alignment. Indeed, I did think of WP when watching the Liverpool fans celebrate with the squad last Tuesday.

But what I was thinking was how many millions of miles away WP are from being a Liverpool. In the sense that there is clearly so much connectedness between the different parts of what makes Liverpool whole, meaning from admin through to the coaching/management group, players and then to the fans/support base.

Anyone who thinks there is anything like that at WP either just hasn’t been paying attention or has been living on Mars. If Liverpool are an object lesson on how things should be done in professional sport, then WP are the object lesson on how things shouldn’t be done.

The very fact that the press release had to be issued in the first place illustrates the point. It appealed to Stormers fans, the stakeholders Zacks was referring to, to get behind the team and back the current coaching staff to continue in their jobs for the rest of the season.

This was disingenuous for the reason that the people who haven’t been backing the Stormers, the people who have been putting the biggest obstacles in their path, have been the very people who issued the release.

It’s always been thus, and if you disagree just ask two top rugby brains, Rassie Erasmus and Nick Mallett, both of whom served in positions that equated to the WP director of rugby position, about the circumstances surrounding their departures. Erasmus spoke at the time of the interference by elected officials and the politicking between individuals that deflected the focus away from rugby.

It is understood that less than two hours ahead of the home derby against the Bulls, Fleck was informed by Zacks that he would be sacked if his team didn’t win both that game and the following one against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.

Some have argued in favour of the decision on the basis that John Dobson is taking over next season anyway so he might as well get cracking with the job now. While that might appear to make sense on a superficial level, it doesn’t if you do what the decision makers should be doing before acting, which is to apply your mind to it.

Firstly, the Stormers are still very much in contention in the South African conference, their season is far from over, and wouldn’t have been even if they had lost to both the Bulls and the Jaguares. The WP press release seems to be treating this as if it should be news to Stormers fans. But it shouldn’t be news to the WP Board.

There are no Barcelonas in the SA conference. Who, in professional sport, changes coaches when it is all still on the line at such a critical stage of the season?

Secondly, if the proposed change was just directed by succession planning considerations, why the need for an ultimatum? And why the need to win the Jaguares game, which South African teams wouldn’t be expected to win anyway.

Surely if getting Dobson started was such a strong consideration, the change could have been made in March, when the plans for next year were first announced. It should not depend on the result of the next game, the incumbent coach should not be operating on a game-to-game basis with the sword of Damocles hanging over him.

Thirdly, and most importantly, was Dobson consulted about this plan? I asked him long ago if he would be prepared to take over the Stormers in mid-season and his answer was an emphatic no. If I knew this, why didn’t the board and the executive know it? Or even consider it a possibility and call in Dobson to ask him themselves?

According to Sunday media reports, Dobson played a role in saving Fleck by digging his heels in. It is understood the rest of the current management did too. Which begs another question – was there any due process, any attempt made to establish the facts of the working relationship within the management, carried out before the decision to axe Fleck was taken? There wasn’t.

If there had been, the faction of elected officials driving the move against Fleck would have known that the camp is a happy one. There have been some mistakes made on the field, but there hasn’t been any indication that the coach has lost the change room or, like the Sharks, there is a lack of effort and possible problems within the team environment. Unlike the Bulls and Sharks, most failures have been by fine margins. 

The assistant coaches currently working with the team are also Dobson’s assistant coaches and they want Fleck to serve out his term so they can learn from his experience. As does Dobson.

Not that it was just Dobson that saved Fleck. We hear that the coach made a convincing argument for his retention when he went in front of the Board last Tuesday.

I have no idea of what was said, but from what is remembered of the Erasmus experience he probably showed them some videos illustrating the fine margins that separated him from a successful tour and then produced some statistics that would have had the various officials and board members nodding in agreement and uttering words such as: “We didn’t know this, that is very interesting”.

Which, in a nutshell, is the real problem – a professional rugby operation is being run by people who know far too little about professional rugby, and have far too little real experience of professional rugby, to be making the decisions they do. Which is why, when WP reference the Liverpool experience, they are living in dreamland.

- Gavin Rich

Let's chat

  • John Comyn

    Nothing surprises me with the WP board. BTW when Fleck started he said the most realistic chance of winning SR would be in his 3rd year. It looks like it is not going to happen but nevertheless. All of these suits agreed on Flecks appointment, when Jones did a duck, knowing full well that he was lacking in experience. Not only that they all agreed on 3 years as a realistic time frame. I am on the Saracens and Munster twitter feed and it is very clear that all the stakeholders, from the owners through to the supporters, are all on the same page. In fact the camaraderie across the board is quite amazing! In effect they have built a family culture.

  • Jacques Nortier

    WP Rugby is equal to SANZAAR ….A Joke….they live in la-la land. What a bunch of people who are not living in reality.

    They have lost me a long time a go as a supporter

  • Wesley

    Im afraid too many people, including those on the WP board, are listening to some wackjobs on public forums, perharps Zacks himself spends too much time on Twitter? Yes we dont want to stick our heads in the sand as supporters of any team, but some perspective is required, and im afraid its now popular to be considered “woke” when you are shit negative and critical about EVERYTHING, no matter what the subject matter or what positives there may be.

    I was never a Fleck fan, but the board must take just as much responsibility on this, funny how nobody wants to put the hard graft in to save things, and easier to complain and place ultimatums when things go pearshaped.

  • John

    No knowledge….no ethics…..no honesty…..no interest……all about themselves and so called transformation. Transformation has a new meaning….failure while earning a salary

  • OldGitEd

    Problems at WP are all to clear. Incompetent management, mismanagement and a management that are legends in their own minds. This is what you get when rugby excellence is forgotten and self-enrichment and personal ego is rewarded.

  • Barry

    I read this article from top to bottom and was really annoyed at the end of it, so I read it again, just to make sure that I hadn’t misunderstood the objectives of Gavin Rich, but sadly not!

    It comes across as nothing less than a piece written in support of “buddy Fleck”!

    The crux of the attack on Zacks is primarily based on the paragraph that reads “It is understood that less than two hours……”. Well Mr Rich, understood by who, has this been confirmed by Zacks – have you asked him – or are we just to accept this verbatim because it helps support the story?

    There is no question that there are major issues at Western Province and I really feel for their supporters, because quite simply they deserve better. The Administration are unquestionably accountable and there is much work that needs to be done to rectify matters, but we should not allow poor journalism to sway us away from other issues that exist at Province and that is the question of Coaching!

    Mark Keohane wrote about this more than a year ago, accusing Province Management of “rewarding mediocrity”. He was referring specifically to the fact that there were major coaching issues and that these were being swept under the carpet and not addressed!

    The point I make is that there are two issues at Province, that of Administration and Management and another of poor coaching. Let us not cover up the second issue by trying to blow up the first!

    The accusations made of Zacks in this article are of his threatening Fleck because he wanted results and secondly a plea for the fan base to get behind the team. These actions Mr Rich are signs of a Manager trying to do something about their predicament. It is long in coming and should be supported by all and not undermined in the way you have done – all in support of a buddy!

  • Redge

    Pathetic how negative SA rugby can be. A win over the Saders might be a big ask but certainly not impossible. Remember the Boka vs Japan and the Boks beaten the AB’s in Wellington in 2018 against all odds. Fleck is not a good coach but is Pote, Swys and du Preez any better? Check the log. I totally agree that rugby in SA is a political mess. Almost no ex Bok hero’s involved, why? We as supporters are so negative and provincialism is such a big issue that we are as guilty as the useless administrators. The Sharks (not my team) came so close to beat the Saders in NZ but still we criticise them for not scoring a try. WTF guys get real that was a huge effort and we should all be proud of them.Do we expect the teams to say “o we won’t be able to beat this team this weekend it’s just not possible” If a team believe they can win they have a very good chance to succeed but if they don’t they will be demolished. Rather het behind ALL SA teams with a positive attitude and attend the games to support them in a positive way.

  • Dean Bright

    Super Rugby is on it’s way out. They are losing too much star power and the games have become pretty dire to watch. There’s probably 1 out of 6 games that are worth watching each week. Next year there’ll be no more Folau, Naholo, Milner-Skudder, Owen Franks, Ben Smith, Pollard, RG, Lood, Etzebeth, Coenie, du Preez’s and it’s not even the end of the season yet. Then you add in all the coaches from around the World who are in the European leagues. Super Rugby is a dying competition. Pro14, English Premiership and the French Top14 have overtaken it. Sanzaar need to seriously reboot and find ways to compete with those leagues.

    It’s always been a NZ dominated competition but already this year, the finalists are all but decided. Empty stadiums, non-stop drama off the field ie. (Folau saga, Treu at Stormers, Swys’ meltdown, Crusaders proposed name change, Sharks boardroom issues). One can only hope that rugby would take precedence and be the main attraction.

    • Barry

      Yes, difficult to argue against. There is always change after World Cup, but this one is looking to be a monster!

  • Graeme Fleetwood

    It’s a problem in SARU, not only WP. People who have played rugby and won at the highest levels must govern it. They have the passion and the drive to do the right things for SA rugby. Too many of the current administrators are in it for the power trip and making themselves rich, just like our politicians.

    • Redge

      Now you talking! People who care about the game

  • Redge

    Great weekend for SR in SA with the Bulls and Lions winning and the Stormers with their draw against the mighty Crusaders. Also great stuff from the WO supporters with a fantastic crowd

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