OPINION | Uncertainty looms for South African rugby in wake of Covid fallout

01 April 2020 - 10:15 By LIAM DEL CALME
Lions CEO Rudolf Straeuli has shoulders that can carry a crisis.
Lions CEO Rudolf Straeuli has shoulders that can carry a crisis.
Image: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images

The full financial impact Covid-19 will have on the local rugby economy is not yet known but the signs from elsewhere are far from rosy.

Already players in England are gearing for pay cuts as the majority of Premiership teams grow increasingly desperate to slash their costs while the game languishes in limbo.

Harlequins got the ball rolling with a proposed 25% pay cut, and other clubs soon followed suit. The cuts, however, will be legally binding only if the players agree to them.

In New Zealand conversations about salary alterations are at an advanced stage and already the country’s centrally contracted coaches, including All Blacks coach Ian Foster, have taken a pay cut.

Across the ditch, Rugby Australia have announced that 75% of their work force should not bother pitching up for the next three months. There is also the prospect of one Aussie Super Rugby franchise getting the chop next season.

In SA conversations are happening behind closed doors but the players here are almost certainly going to be called in for deeply unpalatable conversations.

The Lions’ majority shareholder and chairman, Altmann Allers, who told this writer that he runs the organisation like a business, stressed all options have to be on the table.

“Tough decisions will have to be taken to ensure that we protect the business and, in fact, the industry,” warned Allers.

He said while they will attempt to keep jobs, decisions that do not suit everyone will have to be made.

“We will be irresponsible if we don’t look at all the options. It won’t just be the players, we are talking coaches, support staff, the bloke who mows the grass.”

The Lions, of course, have been down this dimly lit path before.

When they split from former equity partner Guma Tac, the franchise went through a vigorous, cut-to-the-bone restructuring process.

Their woes were worsened by their exclusion from Super Rugby and their main sponsor MTN also opted to part ways.

Rudolf Straeuli was installed as the new CEO and the turnaround strategy slowly took shape. Within three years the Lions played the first of three consecutive Super Rugby finals.

Straeuli is endowed with shoulders to carry a crisis. The Lions turnaround barely compared to what he went through at Bedford in England in the late 1990s and the looming crisis will seem like déjà vu for the former Bok backrower.

He became player-coach at then recently promoted Bedford but their elevation to the Premiership coincided with empty promises and resultant empty coffers.

It was up to Straeuli and not the team’s owner, boxing promoter Frank Warren, to share the bad news with the players.

Some senior players had already quit but Straeuli became the glue that held a club, which averaged just more than 3 000 spectators a game, together. He admitted later it became a question of trust and the players, who weren’t being paid, eventually voted to continue playing come what may.

As a Rugby World Cup winner and coach, it fell to Straeuli to be the calming influence in a Bedford team that was in a relegation battle with West Hartlepool.

The players’ loyalty paid off as Bedford survived the chop, partly also because Richmond and London Scottish were placed into administration and merged into London Irish who did not compete in the Premiership the following season.

This time the circumstances are slightly different but empathy and trust are commodities Straeuli and the players respectively will have to display again in the coming months.