(Written 27 October 2013)
For many years, mainly in the 70s and 80s, I was a big rugby fan. Even if it was just Bellville vs. Police (club rugby), I was at Newlands almost every Saturday afternoon. I still remember the after-match party after watching, from the Railway Stand, as Robbie Blair’s conversion sailed over the poles in the dying moments of the 1976 game in which Western Province thrashed the All Blacks, 12-11. Certainly, as a WP fan, there were many enjoyable moments and much camaraderie but then, while world rugby had moved to become a more intricate game, it became difficult to watch the stodgy approach adopted by most South African teams. The ‘not losing’ approach by Western Province over the last five years or so has been most disappointing, especially given that the team has so many fine players. So, why should the outcome of the 2013 Currie Cup signal the dawn of a new era in South African rugby?
Well, if you want a predictor of the possible success or otherwise of an organisation, take a look at the management. It will come as no surprise to find that if mediocrity is in charge, mediocrity will be the result. Exceptional results are only achieved when there are exceptional people at the top. It turns out, incidentally, that the character and personality of an organisation is that of the person at the top…, and this goes for all environments. If you want to know how South Africa was saved in the late 80s, look at Nelson Mandela; and if you want to know where South Africa is going now, look at Jacob Zuma (and sigh once more for the beloved country). Then think about the masterful way in which the Sharks dismantled the Western Province in the 2013 Currie Cup final.
It has been suggested that the recent appointments of John Smit as the CEO of Natal Rugby and Jake White as the Director of Coaching heralds a new dawn in South African rugby. I believe it…, now more than ever…, even if they do not manage to find a place for Brendon Venter in the mix. The way in which the Sharks took control of the game was, I believe, the first signs of the influence of the new men at the top. To illustrate the point, I would like to use an example that is a little closer to home. It was with great satisfaction that I learned that in a curtain-raiser at Newlands last Saturday there were two Wynberg Old Boys in the Under-21 team, one of them the team’s captain. It has been many years since Wynberg Boys High School was so well represented at the provincial level in rugby and as someone who has been able to watch that organisation from close up, I know that this outcome is directly attributable to Wynberg’s men ‘at the top’.
Sadly I think it will still be many years before I can look forward to saying that Western Province rugby is a leader in the game. The Western Cape schools will certainly continue to produce great players who will make a space for themselves on the world stage, but as a Rugby Union, the stamp of mediocrity that is the management of the Western Province will leave the team playing ‘catch-up’ to the Sharks for a long time to come.