Robbie Fleck. Picture: GRANT PITCHER/GALLO IMAGES
Robbie Fleck. Picture: GRANT PITCHER/GALLO IMAGES

A new rugby season begins next week with SuperHero Sunday at the Cape Town Stadium and judging from the names written, with the nucleus of a Springbok pack and solid back-up in every position, you’d expect the Stormers to be strong Super Rugby challengers.

However, what names on a team sheet cannot tell you is how conducive the off-field environment, and quality of the leadership in the administration, is to breeding on-field success. Unfortunately the news on that front is not good for Cape rugby fans.

While Stormers coach Robbie Fleck and his management team have been working hard at getting the squad ready for the new season, the sideshows have continued unabated since Western Province’s new president, Zelt Marais, promised during the electioneering phase to cut the pay of professional players and coaches by 25%.

If Marais had any understanding of how professional sport works he would have known how idiotic his comments were. Maybe he does now because I was at the press conference before Christmas where he made a rather inept attempt to back-track on his pre-election promises. There were lots of words, they didn’t really make any sense. There is no defence for Marais — you can’t cut salaries on signed contracts and if you did try it you’d have a mass walkout and no team — but he is really just a product of the system. The core problem at WP is that there are  more than 100 clubs that make up the union. Marais took the populist appeal route to get elected because he felt he had to.

The shenanigans have continued with the ongoing saga of Paul Treu, the former Blitzbok coach and Stormers defence coach who accused WP of discrimination. An independent law firm was employed to investigate and WP were cleared of any discrimination. Treu was shifted to a position where he wouldn’t be part of the Stormers management and that should have been the end of the matter.

But Treu and Marais are understood to be strong allies, and there has been much disquiet among the Stormers playing group and rumours that Marais intends backing Treu to replace Gert Smal as WP director of rugby.

One Treu supporter has peddled the line that it is only individual players and coaches who have a problem with him, but my own investigations suggest that not to be the case, and the same with the contention of some Exco members that it is only the white coaches working in the WP professional structure who are trying to block him.

Sponsors

As was written in a Sunday newspaper report this week, the situation has led to the player representatives taking the issue up with the sponsors. At the start of the weekend it was learnt that sponsors (DHL, Brightrock and Land Rover) had given WP until Monday to stop fudging the issue and effectively sack Treu.

It was being viewed as a Rubicon moment by some at WP and those who have followed rugby in the region over a long period  wouldn’t see it as a surprise if sponsors and other stakeholders are finally losing patience with the way amateur office bearers continue to create obstacles to the efficient running of a professional sports team.

That really is the crux of the issue. The officials elected out of club rugby should administer the amateur side of the game, and stick to that. The hiring and firing of professional coaches, and the appointment of the next director of rugby, should be the responsibility of Smal (in the case of the coaches), and CEO and the board when it comes to the next director of rugby.

Those are not appointments that an amateur office bearer should be able to influence in a quest to get populist appeal and votes.

It will be recalled that Marais’s predecessor as president, Thelo Wakefield, turned down Smal’s recommendation for John Mitchell to take over as Stormers coach. That shouldn’t be allowed to happen and if it is not already prohibited by the constitution, it should be.

Neither should those decisions ever be up to an Exco made up of amateur office bearers who have no experience or working knowledge of professional rugby.

The power wielded over professional rugby by officials elected out of amateur rugby has of course been a cancer not only holding back WP, but South African rugby as a whole. But while WP may be a microcosm of a wider problem, nowhere is rugby administration more agenda-driven than it is in the Cape.

It appears to have become even more so with the election of the new president and the distracting uncertainty wrought by the populist approach of elected office bearers is a potentially fatal obstacle to the Stormers’ Super Rugby prospects.