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Uncertain future: EP fights for a seat at rugby’s new...

DM168

DM168 SPORT

Uncertain future: EP fights for a seat at rugby’s new table

Athi Mayinye of the Eastern Province Elephants during the SA Rugby Preparation Series match between Toyota Cheetahs and Eastern Province Elephants at Toyota Stadium on 28 March 2021 in Bloemfontein. (Photo: Johan Pretorius / Gallo Images)

Eastern Province Rugby is a case study for much of what’s wrong with South African sports administration – and sport in general. The old union, in a region awash with talent, faces an uncertain future.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Eastern Province boasted strong structures when Alan Solomons, Robbi Kempson and other crack coaches assembled a makeshift Southern Kings team for a fixture against the British & Irish Lions in 2009. Twelve years later, with the Kings franchise now disbanded and the feeder unions in disarray, the region faces another long rebuild.

The modest goal of building a squad that can compete at a professional level – as well as the drive to develop more black players in the rugby-mad region – may take years to realise. While some are positive about the future, most are still reeling from the events of 2020.

Kempson was on the ground for the launch of the Kings franchise in 2009. Last year, he was one of the coaches who fought for the players who lost their jobs following the decision to liquidate the franchise.

Few are better placed to comment on this region’s regression. This season, EP are starting from scratch.

“There was absolutely nothing in 2009,” the former Kings director of rugby tells DM168. “We built a team to be competitive in Super Rugby. We put together an academy focused on developing local talent.

“The EP junior sides eventually qualified for the A section of the domestic tournament. We won the under-19 provincial competition in 2015. We started to see local stars coming through. We always knew they were there.

“Unfortunately, we have a situation now where the amateur arm is running the professional team. EP has to be run as a professional franchise if it is going to rebuild and realise its potential. What’s more, EP will need sound financial backing to realise their goals,” Kempson said. 

Robbi Kempson during the Southern Kings media open day at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on 24 September 2019 in Port Elizabeth. (Photo: Michael Sheehan / Gallo Images)

Region of vast potential

The potential of the region is plain for all to see. Siya Kolisi, Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi rose above their circumstances in the poverty-stricken Eastern Cape to become World Cup-winning Springboks. While the structures and, indeed, the professional mindset may be lacking, the passion for the game is patent.

A total of 357 players have been capped by the Springboks since South Africa returned from sporting isolation in 1992. Of those players, 13% were schooled in the Eastern Cape. Only the Western Cape region (24%) and Free State (15%) have produced more schoolboys who have gone on to wear the green and gold in this period.

It’s important to note where these players were based at the time of their international debuts, though. A mere 1% of the players made their first Test appearance while based at an Eastern Cape union.

This serves to highlight how many players from EP and Border have sought opportunities at other franchises after school. Rassie Erasmus, Kolisi, Mark Andrews and Os du Randt are just some of the prominent schoolboys who have gone on to launch pro-careers in different provinces.

Nearly a fifth of South Africa’s black Springboks – 14 out of 80 – began their journey in this region. Again, only 1% of the group earned national selection while on duty with EP or Border.

Over the past six years, SA Rugby has made the distinction between “generic black players” and “ethnic black African players” to ensure that the latter receive more opportunities. While the Western Cape leads the way in producing generic black talent, the biggest pool of ethnic black African talent is in the Eastern Cape.

It’s important to note that 36% of all ethnic black African players selected for the Boks since 1992 have been schooled in the Eastern Cape. Kolisi, Am, Mapimpi, the Ndungane twins and Lizo Gqoboka are among those who began their rugby journey in that part of the world.

R51 in the bank account

What might the Eastern Cape build with the right backing and structures? Could they retain most of the players born, schooled and developed in the region and compete against the more-fancied franchises?

With the necessary resources at their disposal, could they better identify black talent and ensure that fewer stars leave for other teams and that fewer players give up on a career in rugby altogether?

The events of the past 12 years have damaged the brand of the Kings and the reputation of the unions that comprise it.

After the franchise was liquidated last year, the Kings players and coaches asked some tough yet relevant questions regarding the administration’s capacity to run a professional entity.

“We came together four years ago in the wake of Cheeky Watson,” EP president Andre Rademan tells DM168, referring to the corrupt former Kings chair who drove Eastern Cape rugby into the ground.

“There was R51 in the bank at that stage. There was loads of debt. We fought hard to get things right on and off the field.

“The liquidation in 2020 was painful,” he adds. “It wasn’t popular, but it was necessary. We couldn’t go on like that financially.”

The majority of the squad left the province in pursuit of paying opportunities elsewhere. In December, EP managed to recruit former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers as their new director of rugby.

An EP side made up of local club players were humiliated by their provincial counterparts in the Preparation Series. Afterwards, De Villiers admitted that the team needed help in order to grow.

Rademan insists that returning to the playing field is an important first step on the road to redemption.

“We’re on another four-year journey to turn things around,” he says, “I believe we have already turned a corner by competing in the Preparation Series.

“A lot of people criticised us for the scorelines in that tournament, but what they need to understand is that this EP team hasn’t played since 2019, and this version of the side is made up of club players.

“We saw what the full-strength team was capable of in recent years when they beat the Bulls at Loftus and the Sharks in PE [in the 2017 Super Rugby tournament]. After we were kicked out of Super Rugby, we started to rebuild in the Pro14. Losing a place in that tournament was a big blow.” 

Uncertain future

SA Rugby is yet to determine whether EP will compete in the Currie Cup Premier Division – alongside the five franchises – or in the First Division with the country’s semi-professional sides. The top-tier teams will receive a financial boost in the region of R19-million. The First Division sides will receive significantly less. The decision is expected at the end of April.

Rademan explains why EP, and ultimately a region like the Eastern Cape, needs a seat at the big table.

“That will help our quest to secure more sponsorship and investment. Those games will be on TV and will give sponsors value,” says Rademan.

“We’ve already signed an agreement with UXI [Sport Rugby Institute] and are starting a local academy. If you look at our local talent, 85% have signed for competing unions. We have to change that and keep more of them in the Eastern Cape.

“That will help us and the country as a whole. The Eastern Cape is a breeding ground of talent for South Africa.

“We hope to attract more professional players and coaches to the union. We have Peter de Villiers with us now, but the coaches supporting him aren’t fully professional. We need to change that.

“We also need to ensure that the professional and amateur arms are separate,” he adds. This appears to be a common problem in South African sport. 

It can be mended

Kempson – who was born and raised in the region before moving onto bigger and better things with the Stormers and Springboks – hopes to see EP rugby flourishing sooner rather than later. He agrees that the region is rich in potential and could succeed under the right management.

“I believe the situation is fixable,” he says. “The big thing is getting the right people into the job. There also needs to be a move towards a more professional mindset and I’m not sure the elected officials would be willing to relinquish what power they have.

“We’ve seen how private investors have boosted other teams … but would investors be up for fighting with amateur officials at EP on a regular basis?”

The Bulls franchise boasts a strong brand. The team has won the Super Rugby tournament three times. Contrast that success and hard-earned reputation with that of EP and Border, who are better known for their boardroom controversies.

Would the Bulls have enjoyed their recent title successes in Super Rugby Unlocked and the subsequent Currie Cup without the backing of their majority shareholders, Patrice Motsepe and Johann Rupert? Jake White’s formidable abilities as a coach have been further enhanced by the financial resources at his disposal.

“The Bulls have got the right model and I wouldn’t be surprised if more and more franchises become privately owned in future,” says Kempson. “It’s the way to go in professional sport – just look at the Premiership in England, where all the top clubs are privately owned and each club is run as a business.

“You can’t have an amateur arm running a pro entity, and you can’t succeed without the necessary financial backing.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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  • EP rugby is a sad tale. The Watsons’ corrupt legacy is still lingering on. A clean slate and a new image based on solid values is vital. Part of the problem is the pecking order for selection based on race. What defines a generic black player and why must local black players be preferred above them?

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