Tom Bedford: Rugby, just like politics, is facing daunting challenges

Former Springbok captain Tom Bedford reflects on the state of South African rugby amid political and financial turmoil. He examines the impact of 30 years of ANC governance, the formation of a new Government of National Unity, and the influence of Jacob Zuma in KZN. Bedford critiques the professionalization of rugby, highlighting financial struggles and player discontent across nations, including New Zealand and Wales. He underscores the necessity of fundraising matches, such as the upcoming game between Wales and South Africa, to sustain rugby’s future amidst its commercial challenges.

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By Tom Bedford*

It seems rather cock-eyed to be concerned about the state of rugby generally when, for South Africans, there is the so much more important matter concerning whether or how the composition of the new Government of National Unity might work?    In view of the disparate ideologies of its constituent political parties following 30 years of mostly disastrous ANC governance, let alone Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet drawn from these parties, what state will the country be in for in the next 5 years?     More worrying though is how the governance of KZN, the most populous of our Provinces, is going to weather these political storms where, with the influence of Jacob Zuma, in just six months he acquired additional status and further influence at the expense of the ANC and the country as the establishment of his uMkhonto Party swept the electoral boards in KZN.   

I say this because it was 36 years ago that a weekend was spent with Zuma, and Thabo Mbeki and Azziz Pahad, then banned ANC stalwarts all, in Germany trying to find common ground with Louis Luyt (substituting for Doc Craven) so as to make the most important of the equally disparate sports of particularly internationally ostracised rugby in entrenched apartheid South Africa, work.  

There were other talks of course held abroad too which resulted in Springbok rugby resurfacing internationally four years later.     This was in 1992.    Winning the first of numerous Rugby World Cups rugby without doubt became a symbol for South African prowess when so much of the success of the new democratic country we had hoped for failed dismally – especially under the Presidencies of both Zuma and Ramaphosa.   Yet the powerhouse which our Springbok and Provincial rugby is seen to have become, doing so on turning professional four years after its re-admittance into the international rugby community, may not be all “sugar and spice and everything nice” that it is made out to be when the rugby hinges on only 4 of SARU’s 15 Unions.     

If it was, seen in the international context there would not be the present players revolt in New Zealand; with Australia staging the next RWC the Melbourne franchise would not have been allowed to go bust; three of the England’s top clubs would not have gone bust either; England’s RFU would not have sacked 175 staff; and so on to Wales against South Africa on Saturday.

Welsh Rugby is on its uppers.    It destroyed its hugely viable and impressive traditional amateur club rugby system to form four professionally funded “Provinces” as it were.    So a club team like Newport who beat the All Blacks in 1963 and the Springboks in 1969 is today a shadow of its former self.    Newport and famous clubs like it – Neath, Aberavon, Swansea – all barely exist while the WRU are contemplating reducing their Provinces to three to try and save money to fund their professional game’s outlay.    One of the ways they hoped to do this and reduce their ÂŁ4.3 million (R100 million) debt is to play the Springboks on Saturday in a match outside the international window schedule and which, at the same time time, will help SARU with its said fragile finances, as well as the RFU playing the match at Twickenham (Cardiff Arms Park is otherwise booked).

As the SA Rugby Union’s finances d apparently need topping up, they have also had  negotiations with an American financial institution to get them to put dollars into SARU for a percentage of ownership.    This form of modus operandi has already happened in KZN where a wealthy New Yorker has taken over the R70 million debt pile wracked up in three years by a new and untested CEO.   The result is that the New Yorker now owns 76% of the Sharks and KZN rugby while the KZNRU has just 24%.    When similar issues arose in the Cape and the Stormers had to be financed by SARU to play in overseas competitions, and the iconic Newlands Stadium and Villager fields were involved in various financial tricks to try and remain in WPRFU domain, a local white knight consortium eventually stepped in and like the Americans saved the Union’s bacon.  But then one understands the Border and Eastern Province Unions are skint too and in trouble.?

It is necessary therefore to see Saturday’s international at the England Rugby Headquarters between a dilapidated Wales and a depleted Springbok team as a fundraising necessity for all three.  Since rugby now lasts all year round in order to garner income from mainly television and hopefully filling stadia, top players for both teams could not be selected.   Added to which the Bulls will be playing Glasgow the same day in the fixed URC final in Pretoria.   The chosen Springbok squad with their accompanying phalanx of perhaps 55 or so officials necessary to field professional rugby teams travelling business class is, one assumes, an expensive exercise leading to the rapid depletion of coffers.    None of this existed before professionalism set about changing the game we once knew as rugby.    In 1964 Wales toured SA with 21 players and 2 officials.  One international was played in Durban.  We numbered 15 players and had a Manager.   We won well. 

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* Tommy Bedford is a former Springbok rugby captain who was regarded as one of the best in his position (eighth man). He played 119 times for his home province, Natal, from 1961 to 1976. After 25 caps, he was permanently dropped from the national team in 1971 for his opposition to apartheid. In 1965 Bedford won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. He is an architect.