Opinionista Scott Mathie 3 June 2014

Transformation? No way – it’s all about the money

A few days ago, Rudolph Straeuli was appointed as the new CEO at the Lions franchise. But if you’re hoping transformation is going to take place, think again. His plan will be to identify the best value for money in players. Some will be cut, others squeezed into new contracts not befitting their worth - and yet others will be signed at good value by some decent scouting. But transformation will not be considered in the equation.

“And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

– Excerpt from “Dover Beach”, Matthew Arnold


Rudolph Straeuli has been appointed new CEO at the struggling Lions franchise. He is a man who has courted much controversy wherever he went. His record reads: World Cup winner as a player, disgraced ex-Springbok coach and controversial yet effective procurement agent for the Natal Sharks. His ideologies remain as chequered as his past.

He could very well add yet another unwanted achievement to his CV: thorn in the side of rugby transformation. His instatement as CEO comes at an unfortunate time for the Lions Rugby Union, coinciding with Minister of Sport Fikile Mbalula’s scathing attack on the lack of transformation in SA Rugby.

His appointment has already been seen as yet another high-end job lost in the war for greater transformation.

But this is not a transformation issue; rather one which finds Minister Mbalula and his reform allies fighting ignorant armies on the beaches of Dover, with limp rubber bullets.

The unstable financial climate of the Lions Rugby Union has been widely reported on, with rumours of bankruptcy and insolvency rife. Therefore the appointment of Straeuli is no ill-advised plan, with less to do over racial reform and more to do with financial transformation and a huge cost-cutting strategy. And who better to employ than a man with a reputation of doing just that?

His time at the Sharks was evidence of this and only becomes somewhat controversial when it comes to ethics, public relations and team morale. His mission was clear: to secure the best deal for the Natal Rugby Union. His technique? Why, by any means possible, of course!

It was not too long ago, when I was still at the Sharks, that I experienced this aggressive policy towards contractual negotiations, first hand. On the eve of my debut Currie Cup game against the Lions, I was summoned for a late night meeting in his hotel room.

I was told I needed to sign the contract placed in front of me, or would have to look elsewhere. There was no liaising with my agent, because that would “complicate things” and I was “encouraged” to sign on the night. I didn’t sign, but I didn’t sleep either, and didn’t have a great debut as a result. As a young player it was very difficult to not bow to the pressure of signing for less amidst such circumstances, and I strongly doubt that I was the only one.

Now, although this might result in a better net gain for the Natal Rugby Union, I can guarantee it did nothing for team morale.

But this was not about garnering morale; it wasn’t about transformation either – it was purely financial.

The Lions find themselves staring bankruptcy in the face, and what better way to nullify that than by employing a man best suited to it? If the Lions are to survive as a rugby union, they need to find a way of eliminating unnecessary costs. Rudolph Straeuli is their eliminator.

There is a dream in Sports Minister Mbalula’s mind that transformation must become each rugby union’s main priority, but there exists in this a fundamental flaw; a mathematical flaw, to be precise.

In professional sport, money is king. Sponsorship brings money, winning brings sponsors, good players breeds winning. At no point does transformation enter the money transaction, and hence its importance is nullified. Not because SA Rugby is filled with racists or traditionalists, but because transformation doesn’t pay. Until it does, Mr Mbalula will be continuously waging a war that doesn’t exist. It is a fight fought on the wrong premise. One cannot expect anything to change unless money enters the transformation equation (and substantial money at that). One can threaten, one can shout, one can call on patriotism in a new South Africa, but whether you like it or not, money is king, not transformation.

And if it’s about the money, it means it’s about securing good players as cheaply as possible – something Straeuli has managed to do. Not only has he secured players at cheap rates, but he has also unearthed Springboks from next to nothing, plucking stars such as Jean Deysel and Willem Alberts from obscurity to join the Sharks.

His plan will be to identify the best value for money in players. Some will be cut, others squeezed into new contracts not befitting their worth – and yet others will be signed at good value by some decent scouting.

Transformation will not be considered in the equation. It will be strictly business as usual for Mr Straeuli. No black or white dilemma, but rather a black and red one, as he tries to balance the books to keep the Lions Rugby Union afloat. If transformation is to have its day in the sun, it will have to pay like the rest. DM


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