WP Rugby: The opposite of glory

2016-12-21 13:28
Thelo Wakefield (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Well, at least Thelo Wakefield hasn’t lost his penchant for optimistic, gung-ho oratory.

The Western Province Rugby Football Union president, speaking to one local newspaper in the wake of Tuesday’s final liquidation of the WP Rugby (Pty) Ltd business wing at Newlands, quickly promised “exciting rugby” at the once grand but unfashionably cramped, fast-fading old venue next season.

Now I suppose you wouldn’t ever take to the media to pledge “mind-numbing rugby” - wags might interject that there’ve been elements of that from the Stormers in not-distant Super Rugby campaigns anyway? - but it still seemed a mildly ill-fitting way to herald the winding-up green light granted in the Cape High Court.

It was vintage boxing-promoter bluster from the burly boss, with no special attention given to sombrely assuring the public in the country’s oldest and traditionally most successful rugby region on paper that better governance was just around the corner or any mistakes or improprieties in administration of recent times noted and humbly learned from.

Oh no, the theme appeared all “pack up your troubles in an old kit bag and smile, smile, smile”, with apologies to the World War I marching song.

There is seldom honour in liquidation, a process sometimes justifiably suspected to be a cover-up for malpractice and incompetence, or at very least a desperate parachute-jump from a burning plane destined for a rocky mountainside.

Albeit not in every instance, it can be viewed as a way of suddenly sweeping the floor clean while ignoring the dangerous, rising damp on the surrounding walls.

Wakefield may not think so, but the financial saga at WP Rugby, monitored more spiritedly and inquiringly in some organs than others, has amounted to damaging PR at a time when South African rugby in entirety is at a notably low ebb already and broad spectator sentiment unusually bleak.

Several rugby bosses at both national and union level, indeed, can thank their lucky stars that a mutinous, “sack the board” culture doesn’t exist in this country to nearly the same extent as it does, just for example, in English football.

You don’t see here - not yet anyway - instances of hundreds or even thousands of angry or impatient fans turning out at stadium gates to signal their disenchantment with boardroom figures and their decisions (or in some instances indecisiveness).

People get gatvol from time to time in South African sport but they don’t necessarily rise in active, picket-style and fist-clenching protest, choosing instead to curse over the coals or with comforting cold mug in hand, their militancy perhaps reserved for bursts of mini-tirade on social media.

It is also just possible that rugby at Newlands won’t lurch noticeably backwards in 2017.

There are enough - well, just about? - good people in the system, either at playing, strategic or corporate level, with the determination, ability and ethical resolve to counter that threat.

In fairness, there are administrators at the union, too, who effectively inherited a box of maggots; the process of fiscal decline and questionable practice has been ongoing for well over a decade.

Still, my information is that a few high-profile rugby figures, unsurprisingly, have been engaged in serious introspection, at very least, about their futures in the WP set-up.

It is also formidably difficult to envisage next year any real progress from relative dormancy at the ground, whether it be in major trophy terms or - more crucially at this troubling juncture - the ability to make productive things happen through prudent use of the coffers.

Debt at Newlands is hugely burdensome, with R20m of overdraft reportedly exhausted and a loss of R50m anticipated for 2017.

Bear in mind also that is has come to light during the meltdown that season tickets were down by some 3 000 in 2016, and there were several dozen unsold suites at the ground: neither bugbear seems likely to remedy next year and may only worsen, especially in the light of the negative publicity around the union’s affairs.

Independent directors quitting, citing “lack of transparency” among other concerns, hardly points to a harmonious, wholly well-intentioned administration, either.

One of the WP commercial partners who opposed the liquidation, Aerios, who are claiming multi-millions of rands in contractual agreements allegedly reneged on by WP, warned weeks before it was granted that “if Wakefield and (CEO Paul) Zacks are allowed to go through with liquidation ... they will be stuck in litigation for many years to come”.

It is going to be intriguing to see whether an appropriate general climate will be able to be created around rugby at Newlands in the next few weeks and months for Wakefield’s promise of “exciting rugby” to come to fruition.

The Stormers should still cobble together the nucleus of a pretty competitive “first XV” for Super Rugby, but they have a tough draw and a swollen tally of proven professionals have also left the franchise over the last two years, strongly suggesting that depth over the course of the marathon competition will be a problem.

In thinking of a suitable movie title to employ as a summary of the slippery situation at Newlands, somehow it is irresistible to lean toward one of Quentin Tarantino’s reasonably recent offerings.

I’ll give you a clue. The first word of its title is Inglourious.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    wp rugby  |  cape town  |  rugby


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