The crisis that has wracked Western Province and is threatening to push the union back towards amateurism may turn out to be the best thing to ever happen to rugby in South Africa.
The situation that has developed, and the probable implications, could be tragic in the short term. But the end of a four-year World Cup cycle is often the time when change takes place in rugby, and cataclysmic change is necessary in South African rugby for it to survive.
It was ironic, or maybe not, that on the same page that trumpeted the WP problems in a Sunday newspaper last weekend there was an interview with Remgro CEO Jannie Durand. The Stellenbosch-based investment company is one of the few big investors in local rugby.
Durand put out an emphatic message: South African rugby needs to privatise if it is to survive.
Former SARU president Oregan Hoskins made a similar speech to his union at a meeting in Franshoek in 2014. He said that the union presidents would have to accept that privatisation was the only way forward. They didn’t accept it. Instead they got very angry with him.
That is the problem. We keep using that hoary old phrase “turkeys don’t vote for Christmas” to sum up the chief obstacle to South African rugby becoming properly professional, but unfortunately it just doesn’t lose it’s relevance. The amateur, elected officials don’t want to lose their power, and in the WP example, they are looking to increase it.
In a nutshell, the amateur arm of the WP union, meaning the Executive Committee (Exco) headed by new president Zelt Marais, is looking to dissolve the Board, representing the professional side of the operation.
The catalyst has been the Paul Treu saga. The Stormers player body sent out a unanimous message at a meeting with union leadership last Monday that they want the former assistant coach to be removed following his unsuccessful attempt to bring a charge of discrimination against the coaching leadership at the union.
After the meeting between players and officials, the Board resolved to put in place an exit plan for Treu. However, the Exco subsequently resolved to follow the exact opposite course of action – not only would Treu stay, he would replace Gert Smal as director of rugby.
It has become increasingly apparent that Treu has just become a pawn in a political game and battle for power. Marais proposes to mix board members with Exco members into one body running WP, but the rub is that he wants to be in charge and wants to invoke a clause from the Ronnie Masson era (1990s) vesting the power to appoint coaches etc in the president.
The reasons this should be a concern are manifold and extend beyond the obvious, which is that you have elected officials, selected out of amateur club rugby, presiding over a professional operation.
There are over 100 clubs in Western Province. In every election there is a populous appeal agenda, and never has that been more the case than in this last one, where lower-tier clubs were targeted. The Exco is now made up of members who have even less experience of the evolution of professional rugby than their predecessors. It is answerable to the lobby that put it in power.
The people elected onto the Exco may be well meaning, and it’s understandable that there should have been concern about the financial management of the professional arm. But what is happening is a step in the opposite direction to the one that WP, and the other top unions, should be taking.
It is not only WP that has financial woes. The other top unions would be broke if it were not for their angel investors and it has long been the intention of SA Rugby (the national professional arm) to reduce the number of professional unions and to cut the number of professional players from 900 to 400.
A more streamlined business operation would have the benefit of making the entities more competitive and viable and would increase the chances of keeping the top players in the country.
But the presidents, reluctant to give up their power, stand in the way. It was easy to pick up Durand’s frustration in one of his quotes: “I don’t think SA Rugby is against this plan (to privatise and streamline), but politics is delaying the process”.
Which brings us back to why the WP crisis may be a good thing – the presidents will never vote themselves out of power, but if WP implodes – which it could do as sponsors won’t be drawn to a union where amateurs hold the power and which is set to lose the bulk of the player body if Treu becomes director of rugby – then they will be left with no choice.
Waiting for the presidents to preside over their own demise as role-players at the professional level of the game is like waiting for the train that never comes. Maybe the WP house needs to properly cave in so that something good can be built out of the wreckage, with privatisation forced on them out of necessity.
Once it has happened in WP, and the benefits are shown, the other top unions would surely follow suit.