In recent weeks, the debate about rugby in South Africa ‘going 100% private’ has been rekindled in the wake of a spat at Western Province.
To briefly recap, the so-called professional arm of WP Rugby (WPR), the Board, have decided on implementing an ‘exit strategy’ for assistant coach Paul Treu after pressure from the players to oust him.
The executive committee (Exco) of the WP Rugby Football Union (WPRFU), the amateur elected officials, object and want Treu to stay on and replace Gert Smal as director of rugby.
You can already see the problem can’t you? The WPRFU wholly owns WPR (professional arm), which falls under its umbrella. The professionals can’t make a move without the amateurs having a definitive say.
It’s a system that repeats itself throughout South African rugby and even at the mother body SA Rugby, where professionals are paid to make big decisions only to have them undermined by amateur officials who have election manifestos to fulfil.
So the concept of wholly privatising rugby in this country is good in theory, but far more difficult to achieve in reality.
If, for example, new WP president Zelt Marais wanted to give the professional unit of the union 100% autonomy, he would have to lobby his constituents (the clubs) to have the WPRFU constitution changed. They would effectively have to vote to release all power over the professional unit and let it break from the shade of the WPRFU umbrella. In other words, they would give up access to the money the pro side of the game generates.
How do you think that vote would go?
The complexities of changing rugby from an amateur sport to a fully-fledged pro sport are massive – both globally and in South Africa.
SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux summed it up in an interview with Rugby World Magazine in the UK last year: “I think people forget that Francois Pienaar was an amateur player when he captained the Springboks to the World Cup in 1995 and the transition from amateurism to professionalism was achieved in the blink of an eye,” Roux said.
“A professional principle was grafted onto an amateur structure and many of the major unions are still grappling with the transition to a fully professionalised system: soccer, cricket and American sports have had more than a century to shape their business – we’re still balancing the equation of running a business and a national sports enabler.”
In SA, rugby unions play a vital role in running the game at grassroots level and in that context they are important structures. Schools, clubs, women’s rugby (which isn’t professional yet), development and referees all have to be organised. In this country it is the rugby union which does that, supposedly staffed by enthusiastic amateurs who do it for the love of the game.
But somewhere along the line, when money entered the sport at the top end, those amateurs believed they were entitled to their share, blurring the roles and needs of professional and amateur rugby.
Professional rugby should be completely separate. Money generated by the professional game, should be used for the improvement of the pro game, for recruiting and developing players, hiring the best coaches and support staff and marketing the brand.
Manchester United and Liverpool do not fund hundreds of Sunday League clubs throughout their regions – that’s left to other bodies to maintain and run.
But in SA, the Stormers and Lions are effectively professional entities used to fund club rugby in Tygerberg and Roodepoort.
Considering amateur officials are highly unlikely to vote in favour of removing their hands from a diminishing professional till, what are the alternatives for a pro league?
We’re talking about a revolution of massive proportions, with at least five teams to successfully break away from the formal structures of rugby in this country. It would also require a billionaire benefactor(s) who is willing to fund these professional teams for several years to achieve a clean break. If the benefactor offered to fund five squads of the best talent in SA, with a few international superstars thrown in, the game would be revolutionised like Kerry Packer did to Australian, and global, cricket in the 1970s.
Initially there would be resistance and those players that migrated to play for the Durban Sardines, the Jozi Thunderclouds or the Cape Seals would be left to play in a competition between themselves until the remnants of the former professional sides ceased to exist.
The new franchises, staffed by the best players and coaches and playing in Cape Town Stadium, Moses Mabhida, Orlando Stadium and elsewhere would quickly gain traction.
SANZAAR licenses to play in Super Rugby can be awarded to any franchise the organisation sees fit, while the new entities could also start collective negotiation to play in Europe.
It might seem a fantastical concept, but professional rugby cannot continue to drag the amateur parachute. The game faces an ultimatum: revolution or a slow death.