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Liz McGregor

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

New Year, new model for SA Rugby? Here’s hoping

The New Year sees the kick-off of the 2014 Vodacom Cup, which will be marred by a clumsy attempt by SARU to make up for their failure to adequately develop black talent and a bizarre new thrust by AFriForum. It is not certain that AfriForum’s campaign against the introduction of racial quotas in the Vodacom Cup will be all that helpful to the small unions, for whom the competition is particularly significant. Callie Kriel, CEO of AfriForum, has invoked the anti-discriminatory rules of the International Rugby Board in a letter to the South African Rugby Union. SARU has stipulated that, from 2014, all Vodacom Cup sides have to field seven players of colour in their 22-man squads, with at least five players in the starting team. At least two of the seven will also have to be among the forwards.

Mr Kriel objected on the grounds that “A quota system …does nothing to develop new players. Institutions simply import existing black players in order to comply with the quota requirements. Rugby unions should focus on development  programmes instead of discriminating against  certain players on the basis of race,” wrote Kriel.

The problem with this statement is that the small unions tend to import virtually all their players, both black and white.  What SARU objects to is that currently the players they import are almost all white.

The minor unions are in the extraordinarily privileged position of being  funded to field professional teams in the two competitions they take part in, the Vodacom Cup and the bottom tier of the Currie Cup.  They achieve this by virtue of being equal partners in the 14-union body that makes up SARU. Professional rugby is an expensive business: players, coaches, medical staff, match-day referees and security staff must be paid. Add to this travel and accommodation costs.  Most  also have their own stadia to sustain.  All this costs SARU around R10million for each union – and some of them continue to dip into the mother bodies’ funds over and above that.

And to what end? Television broadcasts of Vodacom Cup and First Division Currie Cup games show largely empty stadia.  TV viewerships are low.  It begs the question: what is the point of these unions?

The Vodacom Cup was initially conceived of as a developmental competition but, given that most unions buy in players from the schools – usually in other provinces – that actually do the developing,  that aspect of it has become farcical. It used to be argued that the Vodacom Cup provided a stage for promising players who might then be noticed by the bigger unions. No longer: the Varsity Cup has taken over as the beauty contest for incipient stars.

And as Mr Kriel correctly points out, it is not at this level that the goal of transformation is most effectively  pursued.  “Instead of playing the numbers game in a top-down manipulation, SARU and the government should address their own failure to develop young black talent at school level”.

AfriForum’s  campaign inadvertently raises the question: should we not be thinking of an entirely new model for South African rugby?  The Super Rugby franchises might, for example, consider following the lead of the English premiership clubs and break away from the union structure.  Our big clubs could argue, as the English clubs have done, that they attract the money – from SuperSport and the big sponsors – so why should they have to share it?  And why should they continue to allow the small unions to have such a disproportionately big say in the formation of policy?

Should the small unions not drop their professional pretensions and focus instead on fostering club rugby?

Or we could look at the system followed by the current world champions, the All Blacks.  The New Zealand Rugby Union General Meeting allocates votes to member unions based on the number of teams each is responsible for. Thus a union with fewer than sixty affiliated teams (which includes high school teams) gets two votes. The number of votes per union graduates upwards to seven votes for unions with 225 or more affiliates.

By contrast, the SARU General Meeting gives two equally weighted votes to each of its 14 component unions. If we followed the New Zealand example, South African rugby would be dominated by the Western and Eastern Cape.  At least there would be a stronger democratic base for SARU. It would also mean performance would be rewarded in that clubs which work to spread and strengthen grassroots rugby would be able to increase their voting power.

The NZRU system is much more agile and responsive than ours.  Super Rugby franchises are operated separately from the provinces and their boards contain independent business people with the appropriate skills. The All Blacks are centrally contracted and managed by a high performance department.

Mr Kriel’s intervention might be motivated by special pleading for a particular interest group but if it sparked new thinking on how we managed our rugby, it wouldn’t be entirely unwelcome.

This column by Liz McGregor first appeared in Business Day

 

McGregor is author of Springbok Factory: What it Takes to be a Bok (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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