Cape Town – The “other extreme” almost unavoidably came to mind when a listless, unusually talent-shy French national side embarrassingly crashed 44-8 to old enemies England in a Six Nations match at Twickenham last Sunday.
It seemed to confirm increasingly widespread fears in that country that private ownership of franchises, a phenomenon recently championed anew with some vigour closer to home by Remgro’s Jannie Durand, possibly has too pronounced a claw in the domestic game there.
Major teams in the French Top 14 professional club competition have recruited blue-chip players from abroad with mounting gusto, to the extent that home-grown talent has been progressively stifled and a leaner pipeline of pedigreed candidates for the national team come to the fore.
One of the most zealous recruiters is Mourad Boudjellal, the outspoken tycoon who is owner and president of Toulon. Onto their books in recent years have come legendary figures from far and wide, including World Cup-winning Springboks like Bryan Habana and Bakkies Botha and, more recently, incumbent Bok No 8 Duane Vermeulen (although he has subsequently returned to South Africa as a Bulls player for Super Rugby 2019).
But if Boudjellal is among those investors in the lucrative league who arouse strong and widely conflicting emotions, there is a significant bottom line, if you like, standing firmly in his favour: Toulon have reportedly increased their turnover by some 500% during his colourful tenure.
That is the kind of figure cash-challenged South African franchises and provinces, particularly in the current local economic climate, can only dream of as many unions drift into – or ominously toward – the red.
Rugby in SA needs a sustainable model
Little wonder, then, that Durand, CEO of the investment giant that has had varying but significant stakes in South Africa’s frontline rugby unions, issued a renewed appeal for urgent change to the current, still effectively amateur-controlled model for the game in this country.
“The only way forward for South African rugby is the privatisation of franchises,” he said. “To lure more investors, it has got to become more professional.
“If we can’t privatise … then I don’t see how SA Rugby can implement a sustainable model going forward.”
He believes that 14 provincial unions (the status quo) is too unwieldy a tally, with revenue having to be shared between too many professional sides, and that 900 salaried players in the country is more than double the feasible amount.
Durand’s plea is emphatically backed by at least one money-smart, prominent ex-player in Keith Andrews, a director of Personal Trust financial services company.
The nine-cap Springbok and former Western Province front-ranker played most of his rugby in the period just before professionalism took meaningful root in the mid-1995, but he has long been averse subsequently to the trend of the amateur tail effectively wagging the pro dog at South Africa’s major unions.
“I’m 100% with him,” says Andrews. “Under the current system, everyone here is so clearly struggling financially, whereas the pro competition (the Top 14) is surviving or even thriving in somewhere like France, despite the issues surrounding the national team at present.
“If we don’t make room for 100% private ownerships we are really going to be slipping down the drain. There just aren’t enough bums here on seats these days, sponsorships are diminishing … eventually things will just not be sustainable. That looks almost inevitable, as we stand.”
Why players seek out greener pastures
Andrews has watched with consternation the recent stormy events at broadly crisis-gripped Newlands, where the still often decisive amateur arm of formerly cash-flush Western Province (officials elected by local clubs, both big and small) has been at loggerheads with the professional wing, causing instability and uncertainty among the Springbok-laden pool of senior Stormers players in Super Rugby.
“If I was back in my own prime years and on their books, I would certainly be looking to go where the grass is greener: somewhere you are properly treated and appreciated, rewarded for performance and where you know your salary will come through reliably every month.”
The South African Rugby Union has taken some steps in recent times toward ensuring firmer footholds by private equity partners: it amended its constitution in late 2016 to allow outside parties upped shareholding to 74% from the previous 49.9, and Remgro, for example, now has a 55% stake in the freshly ambitious, Pretoria-based Bulls.
But the total control Durand and others so firmly advocate remains elusive: “amateur hour” still rules the roost in the major decision-making among unions.
South Africa experiencing the down-side of full private ownership – the French example of floods of foreign stars impeding the rise of home-born talent for the national side – would be less likely. The limited drawing power of the rand would act as an inadvertently useful buffer to that phenomenon.
Instead, privatisation and the accompanying, higher levels of commercial expertise would more likely serve as a potential lure-back for many of the hundreds of good- to premier-calibre South African professionals depressingly plying their trades in foreign climes nowadays.
If whole ownership of unions by private companies or individuals were to become a reality in South Africa, investment might not pour in, of course, on the same lavish scale demonstrated in France by Boudjellal and others.
But it is increasingly difficult to argue against a few “mini-Mourads”, if you like, doing the embattled local game a power of good with their monetary and general savvy … if more fully incentivised to do so.
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