OPINION | Why SA Rugby must investigate 'Greatest Rugby Company' for poor governance at Kings

PRO14 action between the Southern Kings and Connacht at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on 1 March 2020.
PRO14 action between the Southern Kings and Connacht at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on 1 March 2020.
Michael Sheehan/Getty Images
  • SA Rugby took over the reins at the Southern Kings after former majority equity partner, the GRC, failed to meet its financial obligations.
  • Chairman Loyiso Dotwana and Co. made a series of ill-judged errors that cost him his credibility and put players and staff livelihoods in jeopardy.
  • When the proverbial doodoo hit the fan, the Kings received a R6 million bailout from the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro.

SA Rugby did the right thing by assuming control of the Southern Kings, but they mustn't stop there.

The rugby mother body must now look into whether there is evidence of poor governance or financial malpractice on the part of former Kings majority shareholders, the Greatest Rugby Company in the Whole Wide World (GRC).

The ironically named Greatest Rugby Company got the licence to hold a 74% stake in the Kings less than 18 months ago in what a lot of observers, as well as SA Rugby, viewed as a triumph for the beleaguered rugby region of the Eastern Cape.

This was in spite of not bringing a cent of their own investment capital to help boost the franchise's cash flow and growth capabilities.

It took some months for their presence in the PRO14 franchise to be ratified, but after some hard lobbying from erstwhile chairman Loyiso Dotwana - who conveniently used media outlets popular to black and Eastern Cape-based rugby followers such as Robert Marawa's Room Dividers radio programme – they garnered enough support to get what they wanted.

Once in charge, he all but ignored transformation goals that he trumpeted to become the first black majority shareholder in South African rugby.

He brokered a Faustian pact with director of rugby Rob Kempson, who has yet to account for his running to the ground of the Kings Academy in his previous involvement with the beleaguered franchise, to become his main advisor and decision-maker.

Kempson's presence, under Dotwana's blind watch, led to now Springbok assistant coach Deon Davids being driven out of his head coach seat.

Appointing Davids' successor also turned into a public relations nightmare. Using the transformation guise, Dotwana and Co. pretended to be interested in bringing in an experienced, preferably black, head coach to lead the team.

They first courted Nick Mallett to assist them in finding a new coach before he pulled out following comments by Eastern Province Rugby Union (EPRU) vice president Bantwini Matika, who called the former Bok coach "racist" in a Facebook rant.

Then, they put together a panel consisting of experienced Eastern Cape rugby minds - Makhaya Jack, Anthony Heugh and Kaunda Ntunja - as well as Dotwana, Kempson and Odwa Mtati, whose work they went on to undermine.

Former Springbok coach Peter de Villiers stood out as the most qualified and experienced coach of the short-listed and interviewed candidates.

But, it later transpired, the whole exercise was a poorly scripted ruse to get in former Samoa coach Steve Jackson or, failing which, Rory Duncan. The idea that they were trying to transform the franchise was as false as the suggestion that they knew what they were doing.

However, that was the least of the GRC's own goals. They appointed disgraced former KwaZulu-Natal Rugby financial manager Leigh Heard as their COO following Charl Crous' departure.

Heard has a chequered history with governance in rugby, after being ousted in Durban following a forensic investigation that left her with a rap sheet notorious enough to make Suge Knight blush.

She was found to have paid herself hundreds of thousands in "special payments" that she was neither entitled to nor authorised to make.

She was summarily dismissed after being found guilty of gross negligence. But Dotwana, who comes from an engineering business background, thought it best to bring the fox into the henhouse.

Rumours flying around are that Heard was quickly rewarded with a permanent employment contract, just before SA Rugby swooped in to wrest the reins, to make it nigh-impossible for SA Rugby to show her the door.

On top of that, Heard has been conducting all the company business from her Durban home. It adds to the foul rodent stench coming from the Port Elizabeth-based franchise.

Moreover, the GRC roped in conditioning coach Wayne Taylor for an amount believed to be over R100 000 per month for his services, which put a strain on the wage bill. And they made a series of poor big-money acquisitions, such as flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis, who was out injured for four months between October last year and February this year before retiring in June.

Dotwana became Health MEC Sindiswa Gomba in his running of the franchise and the Kings now sit in as precarious and perilous a position as the latter's Eastern Cape health department during this Covid-19 pandemic.

In April, alarm bells rang loudest when Dotwana failed to pay player, staff and coaches' salaries. They ran like lemmings off a sinking ship to try to get a bailout from the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro - an amount of R6 million, whose appropriateness would probably not hold up if put under intense court scrutiny.

The Kings directors also ran to their title sponsor Isuzu, seeking an advance on the R10 million per year sponsorship, sources told Sport24, which they received but burnt through before the season for which it was meant to paid (2020-21) had even begun.

All the while, they ostracised their minority shareholder, EPRU, who we're told had not even had a board meeting or seen company financials in all of 2020.

Their last act was to approach the National Lotteries Board to get funding when it was clear to all that they were on the brink of again failing to pay wages in June, July and August. As far as I'm aware, private companies aren't entitled to Lotto funding, in the way non-profit entities are.

SA Rugby acted just in time and decisively to avoid the precious franchise commodity getting washed down the drain.

But to avoid a repeat - and to ward off chance-takers looking for a free meal in rugby, at the expense of talent - they must investigate how the "Greatest Rugby Company" on the planet ran the Kings into the ground.

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