Rob Houwing and Lloyd Burnard
Cape Town – Fear of a quarter of their salaries being cut for all major professional personnel – including the premier players and coaches – plus possible, high-profile job casualties at cash-strapped Western Province Rugby has gripped Newlands.
The severe move is understood to be in the pipeline if WPRFU deputy president Zelt Marais, on a strongly austerity-driven ticket and with mounting support especially from less heavyweight members of WP’s swollen amateur club base, assumes the presidency from outgoing Thelo Wakefield at elections on November 26.
Wakefield steps down imminently after a six-year tenure at the helm, and the vacancy is almost certainly a straight race between Marais, WP finance committee chairman and a tax specialist at Nedbank, and Springbok selector, SARU playing icon and WP executive committee member Peter Jooste.
It is known that cashflow is enduringly precarious at Newlands, following the much-publicised, controversial liquidation of professional arm WP Rugby (Pty) Ltd in late 2016 and withdrawal several months later of Remgro, the powerful investment company, as equity partner – they seek payback of more than R40-million in loans which had helped pay staff and player salaries.
WP Rugby also remains in the thick of debilitating legal conflict with Aerios, the former commercial partner at the centre of a multimillion-rand dispute over advertising rights deals.
Against that backdrop, fairly widespread sympathy for any fat-trimming initiatives by Marais, if he takes the reins, seems inevitable - the posts of Gert Smal (director of rugby), chief executive officer Paul Zacks and even some long-serving Union staff could be endangered as part of the money-saving drive if rumours from the headquarters are to be believed.
But sources in the professional arm (Western Province Professional Rugby) say the matter is much more complex and causing “huge polarisation”.
They contend that Marais is trying to increase the dependency of the professional wing on the amateur Union, only aggravating the long-held belief in some circles that the tail wags the dog at the highest levels in modern franchise rugby at Newlands.
“The Union have said they will lend the money, to keep the salary payments and so forth going, on the condition – among others - that all the pro staff, earning R20 000 a month and above, and whether full-time or contracted, take a 25 percent pay cut,” one insider said.
“Zelt is in charge of the finance committee … he came up with this proposal. Matters of this (importance) need to be debated by the full executive committee, but he presented documentation (from the committee) for Thelo to sign.”
It is understood that Wakefield has resisted doing so, fearing the consequences for the franchise.
“Thelo is fighting the right fight here, trying to save our professional rugby … and all Paul (Zacks) wants to do, given the current climate, is not miss a salary run.
“They understand the importance of having people on stadium seats, and by extension keeping your vital Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit type of players,” the source added.
“In tough times already, you just won’t have a competitive enough team if they opt to go. We don’t want to have a Kings-type situation on our doorstep.”
Clearly in a move to soften the 25 percent pay cut move, all affected staff would be offered, under the plan, the equivalent figure in equity in the company - although that is effectively a bankrupt entity.
It would also represent removal of a sizeable chunk of equity that could potentially be offered, otherwise, to a private equity partner.
WP are currently the only major union in the country where they are the 100 percent - and amateur - shareholder in the company controlling the professional arm.
Sport24 understands that, under the direction of Wakefield and Zacks, WP have had several leasehold development deals over properties owned by them on the table for some time – with no lack of suitors - to ease the cashflow crisis, although they have been routinely blocked by Marais and others.
Both a banking/asset management company and a private school group, for example, are believed to have offered initial sums of around R20m over land owned by WP at Brookside in Claremont, the home of the Villagers club.
A senior official from a prominent club in the WP fold, asked for his pre-election thoughts, said: “What Western Province needs is to break away from its track record of poor governance and to show some inspiring vision and leadership … I’m not sure that’s been presented by any candidates, without wishing to sound harsh.
“Zelt Marais is a nice, likeable guy but he hasn’t inspired anything for me to get excited about. None of the candidates have inspired any confidence, really, and it seems like it will be more of the same; there is no reason to think otherwise.”
Bigger names in the more than 100-strong club fold, it is understood, would generally not be enthusiastic over pay cuts to the professional staff, realising the importance of competitiveness at that level, but more minor ones might buy in due to the hope of some benefits to them.
*Asked for comment on his plans for the presidency should he assume the hotseat, Marais said he could not engage at present because WP Rugby had in its code of conduct that only the president and CEO could communicate with the media.
He added that the embargo might be lifted in the week leading up to the elections.