Cape Town - The words to me before Christmas of someone high up the pecking order of the professional staff at Newlands rugby ground still echo in my mind.
“We could be another (Southern) Kings before you know it.”
On immediate absorption, the statement struck me as just a little dramatic: rugby in the Western Cape, both in depth of talent and strength of support base, has always been altogether more heavyweight – perhaps still the generally beefiest of all rugby regions in South Africa? - both before and during professionalism than in poorer-cousin Port Elizabeth and environs.
But as matters come to a potentially ruinous boil within the tense, fractious corridors of WP Rugby this week, the suggestion suddenly seems significantly closer to feasible.
Arguably more certain is that, only some 65 days since his confirmation as new president of the cash-challenged and more broadly embattled union, mild-mannered Zelt Marais imminently faces one of the most definitive flashpoints of his entire tenure, whatever its eventual duration.
Central to it all is his reported keenness to install Paul Treu, possibly with some stealth, into the key strategic position – or at least something of similar elevation - of director of rugby, the berth currently occupied by an iconic rugby figure at the ageing stadium, Gert Smal.
The tough Springbok No 7 flanker, a Western Province player for a healthy part of the “Jan Pickard era” glory days (Currie Cup success every year between 1982 and 1986) and custodian of the director’s post at Newlands since 2014, is clearly at risk under the Marais regime - something I first drew attention to on Sport24 in mid-November as the austerity-conscious administrator, then vice-president, began to crank up his pitch for the hottest seat as Thelo Wakefield’s replacement.
In a union renowned for a particularly bushy tail (the 100-plus amateur club base) wagging the professional-tier dog, Marais by all accounts bounded to election victory over challenger Peter Jooste, the national selector, former SARU captain and more pronounced “rugby man”, if you like, in the race.
But whether the younger Treu (47, so some 10 years younger than incumbent Smal) is suitable to a directorship-type role at WP Rugby - his greatest repute by far has been either as player or head coach of the SA Sevens cause been 1999 and 2013 - has become of near-irrelevant concern due to more recent, highly-publicised tensions in the Stormers camp where he has been serving among the back-up coaching staff to Robbie Fleck.
Treu claimed last year, during the wash-up process of a disappointingly ho-hum Super Rugby 2018 campaign, that he had been a victim of discrimination within the brains trust - forcing an independent probe by a law firm.
Players were drawn into the process (only making it increasingly, awkwardly “personal” and potentially divisive) before the finding that Treu’s allegations were without foundation.
Ongoing accommodation of the supposedly aggrieved figure within the 2019-geared coaching team has, almost inevitably, been a source of great delicacy and discomfort: my understanding at a time of unprecedented intrigue and nervously buttoned lips is that any vaulting of Treu to a position of command over the panel would go down like the proverbial lead balloon among the bulk of the senior kernel of the Stormers playing staff.
As reported by cerebral, even-handed SuperSport website rugby scribe Gavin Rich earlier this week, a concerned, possibly even mutiny-braced group of the players, including Bok captain and critical public-appeal figure at Newlands Siya Kolisi, have had emergency pow-wows, at a time when there should ideally be a heightened focus on more rugby-specific matters.
It may represent the most tangible demonstration of Capetonian “player power” or at least off-field activism, if you like, since the dramatic events of almost 20 years ago - in 1999 - when retail tycoon Raymond Ackerman intervened at the eleventh hour to help stave off a financial incentives-fuelled strike in the Stormers camp on the eve of their (surrendered) home semi-final against the Highlanders.
A pivotal part of the player action involved alerting DHL, official main sponsors of the Stormers, to their current grievances ... and the juggernaut global logistics company reportedly warning as a consequence that they might pull the plug if Treu isn’t withdrawn (something that would seemingly fly in the face of Marais’s spirited restructuring wishes) from the system.
Interestingly, there hadn’t exactly been a welter of clear-cut denial on that score from officialdom at the time I wrote this; a carefully-worded Tuesday statement from WP Rugby simply indicated that they retained the “full backing of all major sponsors”.
DHL have been the chief sponsors of WP/Stormers and Newlands Stadium since the start of 2011, and the loss of their backing could be cataclysmic for a union already mired in severe financial peril on several fronts.
Despite the sideshows, the 2019 Stormers, on paper at any rate, probably command sufficient depth and quality in enough positions to mount a credible enough challenge both for conference bragging rights and even the hitherto elusive Super Rugby trophy as a whole.
But if the stalwart internationals among their squad, just for starters, enter the campaign detrimentally miffed about happenings beyond the chalk, the season could unravel innocuously all over again, when what is desperately needed instead is the sort of push that starts luring crowds of 40 000-plus back through the turnstiles consistently for the first time since Allister Coetzee’s tenure as head coach.
It so happens that a raft of genuinely star figures at Newlands (or read: the core of the Springbok pack) are out of contract after this season and inevitably heavily linked with lucrative overseas deals; this includes Messrs Kitshoff, Malherbe, Etzebeth, Du Toit and Kolisi.
Other Test players like Damian de Allende and Bongi Mbonambi are also believed to be coming to the end of present contracts with the franchise.
Let’s just say that the present shenanigans would be highly unlikely to coax many of them toward fresh terms closer to long-time home.
Things are teetering delicately in WP Rugby: they could go either way, perhaps to extremes.
Given its history and long-standing muscle, any multi-factored implosion at Newlands would strike almost as much at the heart of the broader South African fabric in the sport as well - and in already immensely challenging times at SA Rugby headquarters some 20km up the N1 at Plattekloof.
Extremely smart, quid pro quo-conscious statesmanship seems the only route out of the current WP Rugby pickle.
No pressure, Mr Marais ...
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing