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24 April 2014 18:42 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ken Borland

SA rugby's time to enter 21st century

  • Ken Borland
Suspended Cricket South Africa CEO Gerald Majola may or may not have committed a crime when he marred that sport’s reputation so badly, but in a way the whole bonus scandal did the game a favour; it has ensured a revamp of its administrative structure, belatedly dragging it into the professional era. Time now for rugby to follow the suit. 

Cricket South Africa have announced they intend to restructure their board to comprise five independent directors and five drawn from their Members Forum (the 11 provinces), which had me thinking the pressure is now firmly on the South African Rugby Union to do the same.

The whole shameful handling of the Southern Kings vs. Lions Super Rugby situation is a direct consequence of the archaic structure of South African rugby. The General Council, comprising representatives of the 14 provinces (CSA don’t include Northern Free State, Mpumalanga and South-Western districts), watches over the game in this country and they had the final say when it came to next year’s participation in the Sanzar tournament.

But many of these 14 gentlemen are tin-pot dictators and, almost without exception, they all concentrate on the individual interests of their province rather than the broader good of South African rugby. And then there is the anomaly that the smaller unions (those in the Currie Cup First Division) have the same power as Western Province or the Sharks and consequently have been known to sell their loyalty/vote to the highest bidder.

Lions President Kevin de Klerk inherited a union that was in an absolute mess and on the verge of bankruptcy. De Klerk, the former Springbok lock, is a thoroughly decent man but his battle to keep the Lions in Super Rugby was doomed to fail because he based it on good old amateur rugby principles of “fair play”, “what’s good for the game” and a handshake being a firm agreement.

His problem was that the other unions – even those that had pledged their support – were only ever going to look after themselves. De Klerk had hinted at the five Super Rugby unions banding together to save the Lions, but in the end the Gautengers have been banished.

They’re singing a sad old song at Ellis Park these days, but their own naivety and desperately poor results have been partly to blame. They now find themselves in the mud at the bottom of the pond but, just like the Natal Rugby Union did in the 1980s when they were relegated to the Currie Cup B Section. The Lions have to find a way to rise like a Lotus flower and restore their reputation as one of the finest teams in the country.

And what of the Kings’ chances in Super Rugby?

Cheeky Watson, the president of the Eastern Province Rugby Union (Epru), admits that there is still plenty to do.

The important thing for us is to deliver a professional team that attracts attention, which we have succeeded in doing, and now it’s time to build the foundational structures: our academy, a working relationship with the (Nelson Mandela Metropolitan) university, and to put structures in place at the bottom.

With 120 clubs spread all across the region and wonderful schools, this is a sustainable franchise. A lot of building still has to be done, but that cannot negate the fact that the foundation is unbelievably strong. It’s just to get the two to meet: the professional team and the foundational structures,” Watson told SA Sports Illustrated.

Much has been made of the Southern Kings’ transformation credentials, that they will provide a lot of black rugby players to the national cause.

But scratching beneath the surface, transformation does not seem to have been a roaring success in the Eastern Cape either.

Ithembelihle High School in New Brighton Township is probably the most successful black schoolboy rugby team in the country. But despite beating the likes of Framesby, Newton, Despatch, Muir College and Daniel Pienaar Technical High, and proving themselves to be competitive in the Grey High Easter Festival, Ithembelihle complain that Port Elizabeth’s white schools no longer want to play against them and that they have received precious little support from the Epru.

One look at their facilities seems to prove the point. Sports Illustrated reported they did not have a scrum machine and that their field resembled “a stony sandpit in summer, a lake in winter and a subtropical grassland in between.

And why is this river of black talent not flowing into their provincial teams?

Last weekend, the EP Kings fielded just three Black Africans – Mpho Mbiyozo, Jongi Nokwe and Siyanda Grey – in their 22-man squad for the match against the Valke.

The Border Bulldogs were marginally better with four, while the combined figures for the two teams at U19 (8/44) and U21 (10/44) level suggest the Kings need to concentrate on transformation as much as anyone else.

Of course, the big five unions have relied on Eastern Cape talent, especially to boost their player-of-colour numbers, for many years. But they clearly figured out that if they turned their back on the Lions, another source of players, with more top-level experience, would suddenly become available.

Flyhalf Elton Jantjies has been on a mini-tour of the country in recent days to check out where he should sign on the dotted line and the likes of Pat Cilliers, Franco van der Merwe, Jaco Taute, JC Janse van Rensburg and Derick Minnie will surely soon be on their way too.

And, in a competition where the local derbies have been notoriously tough, who is more likely to beat the Bulls – the Lions or the Southern Kings?

I know who my money would be on. DM

  • Ken Borland
ken borland

Ken Borland hails from the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal and was educated in the Midlands before going to Joburg in 2004. For a small fee, he'll write or talk about anything and has been a contributor for Reuters, SuperSport, the BBC, various other radio stations around the world, and Midi Olympique. He has covered rugby and cricket World Cups and, even though his own game is a disgrace, numerous golf tournaments. In fact, he took up writing when it became clear he was not going to be actually playing in the big stadiums, no matter how keen he was!

When he's not around a sports field somewhere, Ken is invariably in the bush, birdwatching, although the sea and its conchological riches also fascinate him. He is a keen follower of music and movies.
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