REVIEW: How dire is the situation in SA?
THE YEAR THAT WAS: It was not exactly the annus horribilis that 2016 was, but 2017 had its share of apocalyptic events. Jan de Koning shines the spotlight on South African rugby.
The success, or failure, of South African rugby is inevitably measured by the Springboks' on-field performances.
Compared to the 33.3 percent success rate of 2016, this year's 53.8 percent - seven wins in 13 Tests - looks very impressive. You almost want to believe Allister Coetzee when he says there was 'progress'.
However, it is no more than a case of 'papering over the cracks'.
It is off the field where the dire situation South African rugby finds itself in, becomes evident.
Bankrupt and near bankrupt unions (and we are talking about former powerhouses of the country, not just the minnows), boardroom shenanigans that make Zimbabwe looks like a church choir and political interference are all issues at the forefront of the looming meltdown.
In fact, it is a minor miracle that the sport, in SA, still gives an appearance of functioning.
Of course there are many opinions (or theories, if you wish) about why the game is in such a Cimmerian state - especially the national team.
While the problems lie much deeper, most pundits don't look past the Springboks when assessing the lugubrious landscape.
There will be those that will point to political interference as the reason (or one of the reasons) behind the slump in the Springboks' form in recent years. They are, of course, talking about the infamous quota system.
Another train of thought is that the reason for the demise of the Boks can be found in the decay of South Africa's premier domestic competition the Currie Cup - the result of adulterating by self-serving administrators. This goes hand-in-hand with the departure of hundreds of first-class players to competitions abroad.
The same problems besetting the national team can be found in the branches of the South African Rugby Union - bankrupt unions like Western Province, Eastern Province Rugby Union and Border (to name just a few) and near bankrupt franchises like the Blue Bulls Company. There are others on the brink.
I will start with the national team and its relationship with SARU, where many of the problems can be found that is the cause of the tenebrific state of the game.
I have been very critical if Bok coach Allister Coetzee in the latter half of the year - mainly because of some poor selections. He will be the first to acknowledge that some selections were problematical.
However, Coetzee is not solely responsible for the quagmire the Boks find themselves in.
As they say in the classics, this just the tip of the iceberg?
You have to ask: 'How much support did he really get from SARU?' It is a known fact that he was handed a number of incompetent assistants in year one and had to fight to get better backroom staff.
While he did get some reinforcements in 2017, there are so many other questions.
How many decisions were made on his behalf - both in terms of backroom staff and playing personnel? Was there ever any negotiations in terms of his working conditions?
Who made the call to release Johan van Graan midway through the year-end tour? I doubt Coetzee would have been so asinine at such a crucial stage of the campaign.
Did Coetzee have a say in the decision to reduce the number of players, playing abroad, that are available for Bok selection? Did he really agree to the well-document 30-Test rule that has left him with only a handful of available Boks playing in Europe? It is a well-known fact that Coetzee wants to make use of more European-based players. Was there boardroom politics at play here?
I am going to be sardonic and ask: 'When SARU took the decision, did they re-negotiate his contract? Are they perhaps in breach of the contract they have with him by making decisions on his behalf?'
There are so many other questions I would like answered.
Was SARU proactive enough when the rumours about Coetzee's axing started to surface late in the year? Or are they hanging him out to dry?
Should SARU perhaps clear up the ambiguity surrounding the role of Rassie Erasmus, the new Director of Rugby?
It is known that Coetzee still reports to SARU CEO Jurie Roux. How will that change now with Erasmus on the scene? If he has to report to Erasmus, is that in breach of his contract?
SARU, in a statement earlier this month, said: "There are a number of meetings and reviews that are in progress on all national teams after which plans for all teams in 2018 will be confirmed."
The cynic in me wants to know: "Is this just a cover to hide some 'legal processes' that are underway?"
Are the players aware of these sideshows in the boardroom that were affecting them? Maybe that is why their body language on the year-end tour gave the impression of them being disinterested. It was especially obvious in the record loss to Ireland last month, after they were forced to fly economy class on a long-haul flight just days before the Test in Dublin.
Who's decision was that to subject professional sportsmen to such uncomfortable conditions?
Now, back to Coetzee and some of his mistakes.
Did Coetzee drop the ball by accepting such testing conditions? Should he not have stood is ground from the outset? Is this a case of 'nice guy comes second'?
I feel he should, perhaps, have taken a leaf out of the Jake White book and put his foot down when they changed the playing field without negotiating with him. You can look at former Bok coach Nick Mallett - another hard-nosed character who spoke his mind when they made decisions on his behalf. Mallett was later made to walk the plank, but he did not take SARU's nonsense.
Coetzee's biggest weakness, perhaps, is that he is not as confrontational as other coaches.
As I said before, he will readily admit that he made some poor selections. However, in at least some of selections, his hand may have been forced through the fact that he was limited by the number of overseas-based players he could select.
There is no doubt that SARU is functioning under extreme financial and political pressure. But much of it is their own doing. It was, after all, their decision to agree to the opprobrious 'contract' between the government and themselves - an agreement SARU CEO Jurie Roux and the previous minister of sport, Fikile Mbalula, so publicly articulated.
All these things do affect the coaches and players and ensure the playing field is NOT level when competing internationally.
Before I conclude this tautological retrospection, I would like to touch on the state of two of the country's most prestigious unions - Western Province and the Blue Bulls.
Both are in dire financial straits.
WP Rugby, the professional arm of the WP Rugby Union, declared itself bankrupt late last year. The method and reasons for that decision is the subject of current legal action by Aerios. This has already had an unexpected backwash for the WPRU, when the chief liquidator was removed from his position.
The WPRU is still in the red, even though their losses have been reduced significantly.
However, one of the big questions is: "What is the role of WPRU President Thelo Wakefield in all this? Is he interfering with administrative and financial issues where he should not? Perhaps they should stop sending a team of executives on overseas trips when they play abroad. What value do they add other than depleting the financial resources and interfering in team matters?
Then, of course, there is the subterfuge behaviour surrounding the possible (or imminent) sale of Newlands.
This drama is going to produce some interesting sideshows in 2018.
The Blue Bulls company will also face some inquisitions and probing over their financial status - following the retrenchment saga that played itself out at Loftus Versfeld late in the year.
There is an arbitration hearing set for early in January, dealing with the retrenchments.
However, as is the case with the WPRU, the role of paid officials (who were previously elected officials) will come into the spotlight. In this case Barend van Graan, the Blue Bulls CEO, is the man in the firing line.
In conclusion. If two such prestigious unions are in such financial trouble, what chance do the smaller unions have?
The examples of good corporate management (where bad situations were turned around) must surely be the Sharks (under Gary Teichmann) and the Lions (under Kevin de Klerk).
By Jan de Koning