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Liz McGregor

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

SPRINGBOK FACTORY: What rugby needs to do to up its game

NELSON Mandela set the bar very high for South African rugby when he staged the ultimate gesture of reconciliation by championing the Springboks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

At the FNB Stadium on Saturday, his magnanimity and foresight was honoured when Bafana Bafana took on Burkina Faso and the Boks kicked off the 2013 Rugby Championship with a game against Argentina — all on the same field.

A question hovers over this: has South African rugby vindicated Mandela’s faith? I have spent the past two years looking at our national rugby team from every angle. And the answer is: yes, in parts.

My journey with the Boks really began on September 3 2011, when I flew into New Zealand, hot on the heels of the Springboks, who had arrived the previous day. My plan was to write a diary detailing every step of their campaign to retain the Webb Ellis Cup.

It would be on the shelves by Christmas, only briefly, I hoped, as the feel-good factor from another triumphant Rugby World Cup would make the book an instant bestseller. I had no doubt they would do well — and quite possibly become the first team ever to retain the Cup.

Five weeks later, I watched this dream disintegrate in the course of the 80 minutes it took for the Wallabies to drum us out of the running. For me personally, it felt like a disaster. I was left with a 45,000-word manuscript and a memory card crammed with photographs. No one would want to read about a failed campaign. All that effort and expense had been in vain.

On the beach at Arniston over the Christmas holidays, it gnawed at me. How could I have got it so wrong? I had stayed in the same hotels as the Boks and had seen at first-hand how much effort had gone into the campaign and how dedicated the 47-strong team was, both on and off the field. Pinning it all on one man — Bryce Lawrence — didn’t seem plausible. Of course he was a significant factor but a world-beating team should be able to work around a poor referee.

I began looking into Springbok records and discovered a startling statistic. I, along with most South Africans, have viewed the Springboks as a winning team. But a closer look at their win rate reveals that the Boks have in fact won fewer than two-thirds of their Test games. Against New Zealand, we have won only 40% of our games.

Beside us, New Zealand is tiny. Sure, it raids the Pacific Islands for rugby talent, but there are only 4.5-million Kiwis, compared to our 50-million. Australia, against whom we have won 55.3% of the time, has a different comparative disadvantage: rugby union is only their fourth most popular sport. Football and rugby league are the sports that attract the talent and the fans, followed by cricket.

And yet New Zealand manages to produce rugby union teams that beat ours in 60% of games. Our record against Australia is not much better.

How can this be? We are a proud and passionate rugby nation. We should be the best in the world.

This discovery set me off on a new mission. I scrutinised every aspect of the Springbok production line to try to identify where the weak links were, if any. The result, the Springbok Factory, was published last week.

I did case studies of leading Boks: Jean de Villiers and Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis.

I spoke to their parents, their schools and their early coaches to get as full as possible an understanding of how a Bok is made.

Just about everything that I learnt about them made me proud to be South African.

I looked at the off-field team — coaches, marketing, logistics, medical — and, again, came away impressed. The headquarters of the South African Rugby Union (Saru), led by CEO Jurie Roux, are very well run.

I visited Absa, chief sponsor of the Springboks, where then-deputy CEO Louis von Zeuner provided an intelligent and principled analysis of South African rugby and a convincing vision for development. Again, all good.

Finally, browsing the Saru website one day, I found the fault-line. It is in the Saru constitution, a document that preserves certain interests — and those interests do not always coincide with those of our national team. It decrees that South African rugby is owned by 14 unions, which make up Saru’s highest authority, the general meeting. Each of the 14 unions has two votes, equally weighted. Saru’s legal status is similar to that of a local amateur club — “an incorporated association of persons with perpetual succession and juristic personality” — an extraordinarily flimsy underpinning for the mighty edifice it sustains. The executive arm of the general meeting is the exco, and its members have to come from the 14 member unions. The same group of men are recycled through the top positions.

The last shake-up of rugby happened in 1996, when Louis Luyt negotiated the historic $555m broadcast deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. In his autobiography, Luyt describes the process: “To facilitate South African rugby’s bold entry into the brave new world of professionalism, we needed to drastically reduce the number of Sarfu (now Saru) member unions from its all-time high of 23. While quite substantial, the income from News Corp was hardly sufficient to support so many provincial unions. After tough and, at times, trying talks we ended with 14 unions.”

Luyt may have lopped off several unions but he left the structure rooted in the amateur era when provincial unions got most of their money from gate takings at their local stadiums.

But broadcast money has changed all that. Overwhelmingly, rugby is watched on SuperSport, not at stadiums.

One argument for the retention of minnow unions such as the Potchefstroom-based Leopards and the Witbank/Nelspruit-based Pumas is that the best players come from the platteland. This is no longer true. It is certain schools that produce Springboks — since 1992, 40% have come from just 21 schools.

A recent Saru survey shows that a mere 3% of schools in Mpumalanga (Pumas) play rugby, and 4% in North West (Leopards), yet Saru gives these unions — along with the other 12 — R7.4m a year.

And their two votes carry equal weight with that of giants such as Western Province, where 46% of schools play rugby. The Saru constitution enshrines this distribution of power.

Almost R700m pours into Saru’s head office each year. More than 80% of that comes from sponsors — mostly Absa — and SuperSport.

It is the Springboks who attract most of this, yet they see a mere 10% of it — and that includes salaries, training camps and travel. This is augmented by pay from their unions, but still they are not paid enough.

They are also not managed properly, and that is why we have what is amounting to a crisis in terms of the loss of top players to Japan and France.

Saru’s reluctance to modernise hampers our high-performance teams in other ways, too. Men who have been in rugby administration for the past 20 years, with little leadership or governance experience outside of it, continue to elect each other to the exco. Rugby itself has changed dramatically. Yet the same men are required to manage the hundreds of millions that now pour into the Saru head office each year. They face cutting-edge negotiating teams from rival countries.

One of the arguments given for not taking on Saru is that it shines in relation to other sporting codes, such as soccer, boxing and athletics. Rugby is at least efficient and corruption-free.

This is absolutely true. But it is also irrelevant.

It is not against Bafana Bafana that the Springboks are competing. It is against the All Blacks and the Wallabies. It is against their administrations that Saru needs to be measured. The New Zealand Rugby Union’s general meeting allocates votes to member unions based on the number of teams each is responsible for. Thus, unlike Saru, performance is rewarded in that voting is weighted to reflect the amount of rugby played.

In Australia, the minister for sport, Kate Lundy, last year commissioned a review of the Australian Rugby Union. Led by Mark Arbib, a former sports minister, the Arbib review found that while the existing system, clogged with former players and the odd accountant, made sense in the amateur era, it did not do so in the professional era.

Much like ours, then.

Arbib recommended that the ARU board (the equivalent of the Saru exco) be composed entirely of independent directors with the right mix of skills and experience. The Arbib review is now being implemented.

If the Boks are to compete on a level playing field, Saru, too, must up its game. It has been 17 years since Luyt’s cull. It is time for another: the bottom six unions should be absorbed into the top eight. This alone would free up about R46m to boost Springboks’ pay.

The Saru exco should follow international best practice and take on a majority of independent directors with the appropriate skills.

There are some former CEOs now available, with the magical combination of the requisite skills, a passion for rugby and a philanthropic desire to give back. Louis von Zeuner is one. Paul Harris, former CEO of FirstRand, is another. Both Harris and Von Zeuner have been involved in the restructuring of Cricket South Africa. Jacko Maree of Standard Bank now has more time on his hands. These men have the trust and respect of corporate South Africa, the bankers of rugby. They are highly experienced in the management of transformation and development in the South African context. They know how to get the best from high-performance teams and they have been at the cutting edge of modern governance.

In March next year, most of the positions on the Saru exco come up for re-election.

If there is no intervention before then, the same coterie of men will re-elect each other, ensuring another eight years of mediocre leadership.

For Saru to live up to Mandela’s expectations, it needs to change.

This column first appeared in the Business Day


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