It is hard to put a gloss on the South African rugby season in 2015. At franchise level, only the Stormers reached the play-offs in Super Rugby, in which they were hammered at Newlands by the Brumbies. The Lions played an entertaining brand of rugby, which they carried over into the Currie Cup. But no one would argue that the oldest provincial championship in the world represents the best of South African rugby any longer.
Ultimately 2015 will be remembered for the performance of the national team. But, a bronze medal at the World Cup notwithstanding, the fact is that it was a dismal year for both the Springbok players and the Springbok brand.
The Boks lost all their games in a shortened Rugby Championship, then lost to Japan at the World Cup. They dug deep to reach the knockout stages and then retreated into a laager of quite stultifying one-dimensionality. It was good enough to win the third-place play-off game, but not good enough to keep the coach in employment.
After a month licking his wounds in private, Heyneke Meyer chose to do the honourable thing, resigning 10 days before the South African Rugby Union’s (Saru) executive committee meeting. In an attempt at damage control Saru president Oregan Hoskins sat with the press in Cape Town two days later and said some very candid things.
“In the next four years, in the build-up to the next World Cup, transformation will be key for this organisation, and it’s something we’re discussing all the time. We have a duty to meet the transformation imperatives that we have signed off for with the sports ministry and that we have agreed to. Heyneke understood that, and he knew what the transformation imperatives were.”
Hoskins added: “We have reached the glass ceiling and we need now to push through that ceiling. If we don’t get it right, there will be calls for me to walk the plank, and I will do that, but then I would expect the provincial presidents to be right behind me as the transformation process really needs to be sped up at our bigger provinces, particularly at franchise level.”
The target for the 2019 World Cup is a Springbok team with 50% black participation. In a squad of 23, that’s 11-and-a-half. Meyer’s last team had three players of colour in the run-on team and two on the bench. That is what Hoskins is talking about when he says a glass ceiling needs to be pushed through.
He is not helped by the meltdown happening at the Kings. The Eastern Cape franchise is due to play the Sharks in Port Elizabeth in the opening fixture of the new Super 18 tournament next February. But right now the Kings are missing a sponsor and wages for their players.
This week a group of those players, led by Kevin Luiters and Ronnie Cooke, met the Eastern Province president, Cheeky Watson, to air their grievances. They tabled a petition asking for an extraordinary general meeting of the Eastern Province Rugby Union (EPRU). They also threatened to withhold their services and set a deadline of December 18 for all salaries to be paid in full. This is not how it was meant to be. Saru was chiefly responsible for the expansion of Super Rugby from 15 teams to 18, specifically to guarantee a place at the top table for the Kings. The sixth South African franchise, it was argued, would drive transformation and give a chance to the abundant black rugby talent in the region.
Now the cream of that talent has turned its back on the Kings and signed on with other franchises. In an attempt at detente, Saru has taken over the administration of the Kings. This week it imposed former Boland coach Deon Davids as head coach, with assistance from former Sevens star Mzwandile Stick and ex-Free State lock Barend Pieterse.
Saru’s press release spoke of a “planned 42-player squad, of which around one half are expected to come from the existing Eastern Province Kings squad”.
Saru was less forthcoming on the make-up of the other half, but it is understood that they intend using players already contracted to the national body from the ranks of Sevens and Under-20s.
If that is to be the case, the possibility exists of both Ryan Kankowski and Francois Hougaard turning out for the Kings in Super Rugby next year, despite the fact that Kankowski turned down the Sharks and Hougaard the Bulls to concentrate on the possibility of an Olympic medal in Rio in August. Someone from Saru will need a diploma in sweet talk to push that one through.
On the vexing subject of money, Saru said: “The players and management would be paid next week, although the position of players not contracted to the Southern Kings by Saru remained a question to be resolved by the EPRU.”
That was the final straw for the existing squad, who know that the EPRU already owes millions of rands to the municipality, which it has little chance of paying back soon.
So the year ends with two recurring themes: transformation and money. The decision by Absa to withdraw from sponsoring both the Springboks and the Currie Cup may, in the long run, be the single most important thing that happened in 2015. To date there is no news of a replacement sponsor and it is likely that we will have to wait until the new year for developments.
Equally, the vacant Springbok coaching position is likely to be deferred while Saru ponders how much it can afford to pay the players and the new incumbent. Allister Coetzee is the favourite for many reasons, but his current contract in Japan is both extremely lucrative and, crucially, free from issues involving player selection.
The players worked out long ago that contracting to an overseas club was a good way to swell bank accounts and sidestep politics. Where players go, coaches tend to follow. All in all, it probably won’t be a particularly festive season for those involved in the administration of the game in this country.