Mind Games: Saru at risk of losing control of the Boks

2014-06-15 15:00

For a Springbok to walk away from the team, as Frans Steyn did this week, in mid-series and having played in the opening game, is unprecedented in my 44 years of reporting on rugby.

There have been suspensions for bad behaviour or on-field misdemeanours; some players were even said to have been sent home from the 1969/70 “demo tour” having had nervous breakdowns because of the threats and pressure from anti-apartheid activists, but never anything like this.

Johan le Roux was sent back to South Africa from New Zealand after the Sean Fitzpatrick biting incident in 1994.

Last year, Trevor Nyakane was summarily sent packing because of repeated breaches of “team protocol” (he was finally pardoned and called back into the squad last week) – but no one, as far as I can establish, has simply walked out on the Springboks.

What the Steyn incident does is show just how toothless and gutless the SA Rugby Union (Saru) has become in maintaining and controlling a Springbok team capable of beating allcomers in the face of the exodus of top players to foreign nations.

Despite repeated warnings that the situation was getting out of control, especially under coach Heyneke Meyer, Saru has continued to waive its own rules and Steyn’s petulance is one of the outcomes.

The team that ran out on to the field at King’s Park yesterday contained seven players?–?JP Pietersen, Bryan Habana, Morné Steyn, Fourie du Preez, Francois Louw, Bakkies Botha and Gurthrö Steenkamp?–?who are all playing overseas. Had Steyn not spat the dummy, there would have been eight.

In other words, more than half of the run-on team. The reserves bench included two more?– Schalk Brits and Ruan Pienaar.

My enquiries, including sources with close connections to the team, indicate that Steyn’s dissatisfaction was over money.

With a veil of secrecy being drawn over the whole affair by all concerned?–?from Steyn and Saru?to the player’s agent – one is forced to conclude there must be a grain of truth in the speculation: Steyn is unhappy that some of his team-mates are on bigger contracts than he is; that the promises he was made in regard to returning to South Africa to play for the Springboks were broken; that fees meant to have been paid to the agent holding his image rights were reneged on; and that he became aware that he had been dropped from the test side with preference given to Jan Serfontein.

What all this reveals is Saru has fallen into a morass in which its players are controlled by foreign clubs and an array of agents who, don’t forget, earn their keep from the commission they earn on the funds they raise for their clients.

These people have no loyalty to South African rugby. To them, being a Springbok merely enhances the value of a player, but they are not bound by any long-established code.

That so many of our players now find themselves in this milieu says only one thing?–?Saru is on the cusp of losing control of the Springboks. The reasons for this – primarily the weak rand, which makes it difficult to compete against the pound, euro and yen – are well chronicled.

But there is no getting away from the fact that in Meyer’s desperation to win, the average age of the Boks has crept up alarmingly with certain players becoming a law unto themselves. Team building has by and large been disregarded.

Yet again, Saru stonewalled requests for interviews on the matter. CEO Jurie Roux let it be known that he “would not be interviewed on the subject” while, as has become the norm, president Oregan Hoskins did not intervene in what is a serious matter.

Being in charge of a sport is not about doing the nice things; it is about doing the tough things and sometimes getting your hands dirty if need be.

Regardless of the rights or wrongs, Steyn should not have been allowed to get away with what is blatant insubordination, and Saru’s lack of action speaks volumes about its lack of leadership.

A terse, belated statement from Saru did not shed much light.

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