Super Rugby

OPINION | Off-field issues will continue to dominate SA sporting headlines

John Dobson (Gallo Images)
John Dobson (Gallo Images)

The media schedule for covering the Stormers - and all the country's franchises - during a Super Rugby season is incredibly structured. 

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In Cape Town, Monday and Tuesday see journalists and photographers head over to the High-Performance Centre in Bellville - an isolated training complex - where a couple of players and members of the backroom coaching staff are put up for interviews. 

Then, on Thursday, the action takes place at Newlands where head coach John Dobson announces his team for the weekend and, along with his captain, he answers questions on the game and the writers all head off back to their offices to start setting the scene. 

Super Rugby 2020 started in much the same way. 

The Stormers were strong out of the blocks but then started to wobble, the Sharks emerged as the form side in both the country and the competition, the new-look Lions were battling to get the Ivan Rooyen era off the ground and the Bulls were doing little to suggest that they could evolve into a title-challenging outfit. 

With the optimism surrounding South African rugby sky-high given the heroics of the 2019 World Cup, the media coverage was largely positive, especially in Durban and Cape Town. 

The Sharks were flying under a new captain in Lukhanyo Am while others like Makazole Mapimpi, Curwin Bosch, Sikhumbuzo Notshe and James Venter were in sublime form. 

The Stormers had done some fantastic work behind the scenes to hold onto their World Cup Boks with the likes of Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi, Frans Malherbe, Steven Kitshoff and Damian Willemse all committing to the franchise when more lucrative offers abroad were possible. 

With marquee players basing themselves in South Africa and with Jacques Nienaber named as the new Springbok coach while Rassie Erasmus moved into the role of Director of Rugby full-time, there was an excitement surrounding the future of Springbok rugby too, with the national side looking to become THE world force in the international game with the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour the next main event. 

It was all going so well from a South African rugby perspective and then ... WHACK! 

The coronavirus pandemic has changed everything, for everyone, and rugby was not going to be immune. 

Super Rugby is suspended, South Africa's international obligations for the year are nowhere near confirmed and, most importantly, pay cuts have been introduced across the board - players, coaches and staff are all impacted. 

As a working sports journalist, I have lost count of how many times during this lockdown a friend has asked: "What are you guys doing now that there is no sport on? There must be nothing to do!"

On the contrary. 

The uncertainty - financial and in terms of the suspension of playing and training - has left sports journalists with plenty to do. 

Over at Cricket South Africa (CSA), for example, there have been issues of how the pandemic will impact player contracts, the proposed domestic restructure, the Proteas' future tours and series and this year's T20 World Cup in Australia. 

When it was announced that all professional rugby players in South Africa would be granted a 21-day window, ending on 14 May, to exit their existing contracts, that resulted in weeks of coverage around who would stay and who would go. 

Given that they had seven of the 2019 World Cup winning Boks on their books, including megastars Du Toit and Kolisi, the Stormers were always going to be the centre of that conversation. 

Reports then surfaced that Du Toit had been offered a monstrous deal from French club Montpellier while Mapimpi at the Sharks was also strongly linked with a move to Japan. 

Those stories dominated headlines up until the contract window ended and even afterwards in the case of Du Toit, who had exited his contract with the intention of securing a new deal at the Stormers. 

The Du Toit saga was arguably the biggest transfer story in the history of South African rugby, with websites and newspapers around the country scrambling to stay on top of proceedings in what were sensitive dealings behind closed doors. 

The coverage around the reported Montpellier offer, and a couple of other transfer stories over the course of this past weekend, prompted Dobson to address local media in a video press conference on Monday. 

It wasn't a rant, but Dobson highlighted his "concerns" with what he said was inaccurate reporting over some of the transfer activity at the franchise. 

"What's been of concern to me is a couple of inaccurate stories, which have been unnecessarily disruptive on the group," he said.

"For example, Pieter-Steph going to Montpellier for 1 million euros. I was intricately involved in the negotiations from start to finish and I can tell you categorically that that offer never existed from Montpellier."

Journalists, of course, have a responsibility to get things right and when we do not, we need to be held accountable. 

What it reminded me of, though, is that our coverage presently is centred almost exclusively on what is happening in the virtual 'boardroom'. That is the climate. 

And while administrative issues and off-field developments, like the movement of players and coaching staff between clubs and franchises, has always been part of the gig, it is amplified now in the absence of on-field action. 

Much of these player dealings, I believe, would have been conducted away from the spotlight had there been on-field action to talk about. 

There are so many exciting young prospects in South African rugby presently and some who were starting to find real momentum when the virus hit. 

A player like Bosch, for example, was beginning to come into his own as a Super Rugby flyhalf and he was generating Springbok attention along the way. 

The Boks were due to take on Georgia and Scotland in little over a month in what would have been their first action since the 2019 World Cup. Every weekend of Super Rugby currently would have been contributing to those Tests, with players from all South Africa's franchises looking to play their way into the selection mix. 

Instead, they're at home, on exercise bikes and treadmills.

Until sport resumes in South Africa, and we do not know when that will be, off-field issues will continue to be placed under the microscope.  

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