PRO14

Cannabis and hemp farming... former CEO's new vision for Southern Kings

PRO14 action between the Southern Kings and Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun Stadium in Glasgow on 1 November 2019.
PRO14 action between the Southern Kings and Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun Stadium in Glasgow on 1 November 2019.
Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
  • A local investor is planning an offer to buy the embattled Southern Kings franchise.
  • The idea is for the company to come on board and enable the franchise to use the "fertile" Eastern Cape land for hemp farming.
  • Tony McKeever, a former Southern Spears CEO, is in talks with the company and also suggests changing the Southern Kings name to Mandela Bay Saints.

A South African investor, listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) for over two decades, is planning an offer to buy the Southern Kings.

This was revealed to Sport24 in an interview with Tony McKeever, a former CEO of the Eastern Cape franchise.

McKeever also suggested a name change, representing the icons of the region, and the union using the "fertile" Eastern Cape land for hemp farming as a way to ensure the sustainability of the franchise and its players via the rugby clubs.

The renewed interest in buying the Kings comes after SA Rugby's decision in late June to take management control over the franchise by taking back a 74% shareholding.

It followed the failure of the Greatest Rugby Company in the Whole Wide World (GRC) in meeting its financial commitments relating to the acquisition of the shareholding.

It's not the first time that the country's rugby governing body had to step in at the Kings, having also done so in 2015 when the Eastern Province Rugby Union (EPRU), to whom the operation of the franchise had been granted, ran into financial trouble.

McKeever is upbeat regarding the potential new owners, agreeing that a significant monetary investment is non-negotiable for the future of rugby in the Eastern Cape.The former rugby boss said the company, for whom he has done consultancy work, is listed as an entity on the JSE.

"They also have a presence in Europe, so it would make sense... they can give a foster home to the likes of the Southern Kings, which has really been beaten up... they (the Kings) have a bad reputation. They're very tatty," he added.

The company's name is known to Sport24, but has been withheld due to negotiations being in the infancy stages.

"It's an initial discussion, but I would say that SA Rugby are aware that there is interest from a Johannesburg-listed corporate," McKeever said.

McKeever, however, did shed more light on the vision the company has for Eastern Cape rugby - one that may raise a few eyebrows among traditionalists.

"I'm consulting to them on the expansion of their products in the health and wellness area - around CBD derivative products - and I told them that the Eastern Cape is an incredibly fertile area for cannabis and hemp. The people I'm speaking to have licenses to grow, export and commercialise."

He pointed to the vast number of clubs in the region that could get involved.

"If one can engage with the clubs... in Eastern Province, there are about 110 clubs, in SWD (South Western Districts) you've got about 68 and probably another 50 in Border.

"You can empower all the rugby clubs and that constituency because rugby does offer a structure - provincial rugby, club rugby, the universities and schools. Those are all the feeder systems into that hotbed of rugby.

"And I see a way for the clubs to be empowered and enabled... by them being collection points for certified growers in the area... in terms of which they would be paid for the volume or biomass. It would be collected and delivered to the rugby clubs, but the rugby club can empower their own local community and that's never been done before. So it's a real potent agricultural initiative to allow the clubs to monetise their constituency and communities they play for."

The corporate listing also has other business interests, McKeever noted.

"We've got a number of other companies that are in the nutraceutical, which is the superfood and functional food space, and also what is known as cosmeceuticals, and also personal protection equipment which is masks, gloves and disposable gowns."

Rebrand to Mandela Bay Saints

McKeever, who was the first CEO of an Eastern Cape rugby franchise when he helped form the now-defunct Southern Spears in 2005, has also for a while trumped the idea of a name change.

The name he has in mind is symbolic of the region: Mandela Bay Saints.

"You've got Nelson Mandela University, you've got the Mandela Bay Stadium, you've got Mandela Bay Municipality, which is one of the four biggest metropolises in the country," McKeever said.

He questioned whether calling the franchise Southern Kings was viable to begin with, suggesting naming it after former President Nelson Mandela was more suitable.

"Why bring in a name at odds with the whole branding of the area? And you can take this all the way up to Qunu, where Mandela was born, and you embrace the whole area. This is not just for Eastern Province Rugby.

"Eastern Province Rugby's got to be the senior partner and take the lead, but it needs to embrace Border and SWD."

He added that a rebranding would be a "clean slate" for the embattled franchise.

"There [would be] no baggage, it's unencumbered, a new name. It doesn't come with all sorts of legal challenges and gives greater credence to the fact that Mandela Bay is a sub-sponsor as it were of the area of the Mandela Bay Saints.

"The people in the Eastern Province are so beaten up, they need really good news and they need to be inspired."

Not a day's rugby administration experience!

Regarding the failure of the GRC, McKeever said it came as no surprise.

"It went wrong because they never put any money into (it)... and to arrive on the scene with such a flamboyant name is outrageous. Everybody was sceptical because not one of them had a day's rugby administration experience between themselves. And then suddenly they scattered like a flock of pigeons in Piccadilly Circus…!" he quipped.

McKeever said Rory Stear, one of the owners of the GRC and former deputy chairperson of the Kings, came in with a "nice idea but from left field".

"There was no impetus. He should have realised… he should have handpicked a team if they were serious, but all they did was a rollover of the financing of R45 million, (of which) SA Rugby wanted a payback.

"There was no deal structure, it was shrouded in total secrecy, they weren't transparent. He (Stear) took offence to the fact that the media were taking potshots at them for not moving along. Their inexperience showed and, as a consequence, led to this catastrophe."

McKeever said the failures of the GRC led to "further infighting in Eastern Province Rugby", with current president Andre Rademan left to pick up the pieces.

"But this can only be fixed with money. So, someone with financial resources needs to come in… and not money for one year, but money for five years. That's why Isuzu (former Kings sponsors) exited because they said 'we can't deal with this kind of reputational damage'."

Kings, Cheetahs deserve slot in Europe

McKeever first touted the idea that South African teams could enter the PRO14 in an interview with Sport24 in April 2017.

The Kings and Cheetahs joined the northern hemisphere event later that year, with recent reports indicating that more South African teams could follow suit.

There have been talks of South Africa's Super Rugby franchises joining an expanded PRO16, but that brought renewed fears over the futures of the Kings and Cheetahs.

McKeever, though, believes the Kings and Cheetahs should be guaranteed an extended run.

"You now need to allow, and almost entrench the Kings and Cheetahs... you've got to give them an entrenched participation for the next three years, at the very least. So, any sponsor or shareholder that comes in is comforted by the fact that there's a three-year window within which they can participate.

"[Regarding] the other two teams coming in... that's a discussion for SA Rugby to have with all of the current topflight Super Rugby teams and also Griquas and Pumas."

He admits SA Rugby could have its hands full accommodating all eight franchises over the next few years, hinting at staying in Super Rugby and placing greater emphasis on the Currie Cup.

"Reward performance. The top two teams from the Currie Cup could advance and, if you want, you can do an immediate promotion-relegation, or you can do promotion-relegation playoffs.

"SA Rugby needs to mirror and adhere to the Sanzaar agreement as it stands at the moment and let it run through to its conclusion (three more years). So that gives the Cheetahs and Kings that entrench window," he added.

According to McKeever, the Super Rugby teams boast enough depth to field second-string outfits in the PRO14.

"All of the topflight teams of the Lions, Bulls, Stormers and Sharks have a surplus of players... so they can quite easily have a Super Rugby team and then a second-tier PRO14 team that could play in the Currie Cup to see who the top two teams will be that advance into a PRO16 (alongside the Kings and Cheetahs)."

Mandela Bay Saints
Mandela Bay Saints
Proposed Mandela Bay Saints jerseys. (Supplied)
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