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
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
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
I’ll give you a clue. The first word of its
title is Inglourious.
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing