Former Bok captain: ‘SA Rugby operating a class system’

Former Springbok captain Tommy Bedford has written an open letter to SA Rugby president Mark Alexander suggesting there is favouritism towards the ‘big four’ franchises.

The letter reads as follows:

Dear Mark Alexander,

Since the malaise of 2019 is it not perhaps time for SA Rugby (SARU) to be honest and share its long-term strategy and vision for South African rugby?   Without that, its decisions and the way it seems to be managing rugby suggest it is possibly bowing to short-term, commercial pressures from the “haves” – the Bulls, Lions, Sharks, Stormers  – and probably SuperSport, at the expense of the “have-nots” – the smaller Unions and franchises.

In the long-term this surely cannot be for the good of the game. It may cause lasting damage to South African rugby and I say this as someone who invested heavily in rugby when money was not the issue.    As this is what is driving the game now I do fear for our rugby’s future.

I trust you will not take umbrage to this letter. I would not normally have written this had I not become increasingly concerned about the unfairness emanating from the organisation you lead as President. SARU, in my view, has again become a sporting organisation of haves and have-nots.

I have been away from South Africa for some time, but have returned regularly. Rugby has remained in my blood since I first kicked an eight-panel oval leather ball around the dirt and dubbeltjie-strewn rugby field of Dealesville as a six-year old. My Free State roots are deep, but my appeal is for all the have-not Unions and franchises to be treated fairly.

What I see happening to South African rugby – viewed from the broader UK and EU perspective – is that you, SARU, are operating a class system in the game. I would have thought that this sort of thing went away in 1992 when the two major (plus two minor) racially-distanced administrative rugby bodies finally got together to form the organisation that is now SARU.

Had I not been involved in bringing rugby’s black, brown and white administrative bodies together in the apartheid era even before the new South Africa came into being, I might not have cared that much of a fig about the unfairness of what is effectively first and third-class divisions that exist in South African rugby today.

As I see it, rugby in South Africa has again morphed into a game that is not equal for all. It has become a game for the four “haves” (Bulls, Stormers, Sharks, Lions) which form a first-class cartel, while the other ten or so Unions (some with franchises) have become the ailing third class.

In this sense, SARU’s cartel is not unlike the recent cartel mooted by the owners of the top English, Spanish and Italian soccer clubs wanting to form the European Super League (ESL).  They wanted a bigger slice of the money generated by the game and have it for 22 years, regardless of whether they performed well, badly or indifferently.  Within 48 hours though, this proposed soccer cartel was dead in the water.

Soccer, as with most sports in the UK and the EU, is firmly based on the competitive principle of promotion/relegation.  By contrast, SARU’s four-member cartel enjoys your unwavering support on all fronts apparently, including their finances, at the expense of the other ten Unions (and franchises) of have-nots.

The rugby of yesteryear which used to thrive at grassroots level, regardless of affiliation, apparently does still sort of exist in those third-class rugby unions. Rugby news is, however, dominated by what the first-class four are up to.  I understand SuperSport is a shareholder in some of the haves franchises, like the franchise of my old stomping ground, Natal, now the Sharks.

This though should not automatically give television viewing preferences to screening their games, or those of the other haves, should it, when SARU is supposed to embrace ALL 14 Unions and franchises?

As Provincial/Currie Cup rugby thrived in my playing days and friends did not only live in cities but in the platteland, they ask how SARU and SuperSport can justify that thousands of DSTV subscribers outside of Gauteng, the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal are regularly force-fed rugby and match content only about the haves?

We hear how the Sharks are loaded with American financial backing. We read that the Stormers are broke (or at least WPRU is). We understand the Bulls regard their R60 million budget and 45 player quota to play rugby in Europe as inadequate.

As for the Golden Lions, they, like the other three, can call on or loan star players at will from the third-class unions or franchises. For that matter, so can the SA rugby squads.

The first-class four are clearly not fussed about the have-nots, cocooned in the safety of their cartel where, no matter how badly they play, SARU and their broadcasters guarantee participation of the haves in whatever competition they play.  For you have unequivocally ensured that the principle of promotion/relegation (as in the Currie Cup days of old or in the most vibrant and successful-league systems in soccer in the world in the UK and EU) does not apply to them.

Had you applied this near universal sporting principle, have-nots like the Cheetahs, Griquas or Pumas would at least be given a chance to compete and share fairly in rugby’s spoils – provided they are looked after and funded on a level playing field as all South African rugby would need to be. Instead, a team like the Cheetahs got kicked out of the southern hemisphere’s Super 14.

They carved a niche for themselves in the PRO 14 competition they joined (with the other discarded franchise, the Kings) in Europe.

When the four favoured have franchises were no longer favoured in Super Rugby and the PRO 14 was extended to PRO 16 to accommodate four South African franchises, Free State’s Cheetahs – who had done admirably – got the chop from SARU so that all four haves could continue having it in the PRO 16.

Shamefully, SARU did not even bother with a play-off to allow the Cheetahs (or any other have-nots) the chance to show their mettle.  That would have been the fair, decent, honourable, moral and correct thing to do.  But as this too has so far foundered with the covid-induced Rainbow fixtures substituted instead, you again simply focus on your favoured four as if the rest of our rugby does not matter.

Rugby never used to focus its dependence solely on cities – Durban, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria – as the game does now.  What’s more, when I played for Natal it had a unique and exciting approach to playing rugby.  Its team in 1963 did not lose a match either, with the 15 players coming from Durban, Ladysmith, Kokstad, Maritzburg and Empangeni (the NRU’s sub-unions).  Your cartel has killed this too.

So where does this leave us?

The governance of the new South Africa has clearly shown how a country should not be run, and that coming after apartheid too. South African cricket has clearly shown how sport should not be run in the new South Africa.

And when in 2012 SARU reluctantly bought me an air ticket for R24,000 because it said it was skint when I could buy one for R11,000, and they then effectively cancelled my attending the  function, I wondered where South African rugby was heading?

If SARU is not going to land up in a Cricket South Africa moment perhaps it should be a broader and transparent church for all its flock rather than the narrow closed book favouring its four haves. Might you not need, therefore, to address that church by clearly clarifying, say, SARU’s:

future vision and strategy for rugby;

five, ten-year or greater plan;

intention to fund and develop the game across the country, making up lost ground;

specific plans for rugby in the country, excluding the four city-based haves;

development/sustainability of rugby in the schools of underprivileged communities;

sustainability of rugby in schools, university, club to provincial, national and international;

ability to monitor the working of those linkages across South Africa.

Just like it is said that in such moments as you at SA Rugby might be finding yourselves in and with you being Captain of the ship that is SARU, there was not much point for the Captain of the Titanic in simply moving the deck chairs once the ship had struck the iceberg. The ball is in your hands, Mr. Alexander.

Yours sincerely, Tom Bedford

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