A familiar sight caught my eye a few minutes before the DHL Stormers kicked off their toughest game of the season – away to the defending Vodacom Super Rugby champions, the Crusaders.
As TV cameras focused on the visitors’ changing room door, it opened and out strolled a serious looking Western Province president Thelo Wakefield.
It’s not the first time the president has been spotted on tour with the Stormers – a fact that the union never publishes, and it rankles. Why was he there?
There was no official Sanzaar business that required his presence (not that presidents of individual unions are directly involved in Sanzaar business anyway) and, furthermore, what was he doing in the changeroom in the crucial minutes before kick-off? We’ll come back to that point later.
In 2018, it is simply unacceptable that a union’s president tours with the team. WP Director of Rugby Gert Smal is with the team because his job is directly linked to the on-field performance of the Stormers.
But the president? WP liquidated its professional arm in late 2016 and last month, when Wakefield proudly welcomed a new sponsor on board, he claimed that ‘even if the sponsorship were worth two cents, it would help the union.’
It’s unclear who bankrolled the president’s trip to New Zealand and Australia, but even if it weren’t WP, or a sponsor, surely the president of a bankrupt union should set a better example?
The money that is being spent to fund this jolly, regardless of its provenance, could either have been ploughed back into the union or used to fund the presence of another, more useful member of staff such as an extra physio or support coach.
This is, after all, a union that (rightly, under the circumstances) suspended bonuses and pay increases last year, yet its president takes a few weeks off to tour.
Which brings me back to the other point. What professional sports team, minutes before a crucial match, has the president sitting in the change room?
Yes, the coach might have invited him, but that would’ve been under duress. Robbie Fleck is hardly in a position to tell the president to sod off, but he should have. Those crunch minutes prior to kick-off are the preserve of those directly involved. Team support staff doesn’t hang around and even the subs clear out earlier.
The Stormers played poorly for the first 20 minutes and were 26-0 down and out of the game by then. Were the players confused or unfocused after having an unwelcome individual distracting them at a time when minds should’ve been fully attuned to the coming task? Only those in the room will know the exact measure of the intrusion, but it wasn’t a good look.
I can’t imagine Eddie Jones, Nick Mallet, Steve Hansen, Jake White or any other seasoned coach tolerating the situation.
The president is an elected official who shouldn’t play any meaningful role in the business of running the union, let alone meddling in team affairs moments before a match. And his mere presence is meddling.
WP has a CEO who is appointed to run the business, yet not a press release or proclamation about the business of the union is made without Wakefield making a statement that generally adds nothing.
Elected officials have long been a blight on the professional game in SA. In the amateur era they were elected to run unions and do the job because of their commitment to the sport.
In the professional era, that torch has been passed on to CEOs, Directors of Rugby and heads of various departments, who are paid to run the business as profitably as they can.
Why provinces, and SA Rugby itself, even needs presidents, is a mystery.