Today marks the end of a very interesting week for the South African rugby fraternity, a week that saw Springbok World Cup winning Captain Siya Kolisi, switch from the west to the east coast of the country, as he put pen to paper on a mutli-year contract with the Sharks from Western Province. A move of this magnitude, involving a world renowned history maker and brand provoked a lot of thought and emotion as it should, sorrow and heartache for the vast majority of Western Province fans, elation and excitement for the vast majority of Sharks fans, as well as a curious case of just how will this move affect the Springboks going forward, for the neutral.
But long before Sharks CEO Eduard Coetzee had even picked the pen that sealed that iconic deal, there was a sequence of events that occurred in the Western Cape that necessitated the move. It had become an open secret that, Kolisi was just one of a number of high profile players that had voiced their displeasure at some of the decisions that had been made by those in the WPRFU (Western Province Rugby Football Union) boardroom over the previous 18 months. In the same vein, it has also been no secret that the WPRFU has found itself in a rather precarious financial position, a position that could see them continue to lose some of their biggest assets in the not too distant future. Although the lure of an overseas currency has already proven to be one that isn’t easy to resist, WPRFU and their constantly weakening financial position would’ve no doubt made it an easier decision for the likes of Springboks Eben Etzebeth, Damian de Allende and Dillyn Leyds to swap the cold benguela current, for the cold European conditions, which ensured a more than worthy financial package as compensation.
What would’ve no doubt compounded the loss of such quality teammates for Kolisi and co, would’ve been watching on as ex-teammates such as Duane Vermeulen, Nizaam Carr, Gio Aplon and even Schalk Brits, who was rumoured to have all but agreed his much wanted return to the union- all go on to join the Bulls, and all to relative success, a success that they could’ve definitely helped to try bring to WP. Instead, WP had to contend with a roster that failed to bring back a first piece of silverware since 2017.
But perhaps, what was more concerning than the current situation on the field for Kolisi and co. was the fact that the board was not operating in a manner that looked to remedy that situation, but rather seemed to be unbothered at how their poor running of the union would only continue to further weaken the competitiveness of their playing staff. WPRFU turning down a potential investment opportunity rumoured to have been R100 million from American-based consurtuim MVM Holdings, an investment that would’ve not only alleviate their financial concerns, but also placed WP in a stronger financial position to secure the long term futures of marquee assets such as Pieter Steph-du Toit, Steven Kitshoff, Damian Willemse, Bongi Mbonambi as well as Kolisi himself.
On the surface level it appeared as though WPRFU turned down a very lucrative investment opportunity, but perhaps the deeper significance for Kolisi was that, WPRFU had just turned down a very lucrative investment opportunity from a consortium which has ties with Vincent Mai, whose bursary afforded Kolisi the opportunity to attend Grey High School. That, coupled with the fact that RocNation Sport who recently tied Kolisi down to their management, had also announced their partnership with the Sharks, effectively sealed his move to the Durban-based franchise. After the ground breaking announcement had been made, Kolisi made his own startling revelation that the WPRFU insisted that a transfer fee be paid to compensate for the final year of his contract, one that he claimed to have “taken care of” himself. Some sections of the rugby fraternity didn’t seem to take too kindly to that, and even went as far as saying it painted the union in bad light, moving forward and would make it a less attractive proposition for marquee players. Now what are the arguments that they choose to use to back their standing point?
1. If a player is not happy, it is best to allow him to move on, especially one who has contributed a lot to the union. 2. That even though contracts are binding, there are “exceptions” and this situation qualifies as one. 3. It is bad taste to command compensation for a player seeking an exit, after serving the union with aplomb for 11 years and that he should be allowed to leave for free, as a token of appreciation.
Now as much as there is some weight and degree of validity attached to each one of those standing points, one thing that cannot be ignored is that, at the end of the day rugby is a professional sport and players as well as union’s have to respect and honour their signed agreements. Even so, that doesnt make a parting of ways through the above points an impossible task, but just further highlights that they each depend on the context of the situation.
For instance, in point 1. There is often an outcry for our sporting codes to adopt a professionalism standard that enhances its credibility, so how then can we preach that message on one side, and then champion players under contract, holding clubs for ransom and forcing free exits purely on the basis of being “unhappy”? I’ll draw a few parallels to similar scenarios in football to highlight examples, where professionalism had to prevail in the midst of emotions and sentiment. In the previous European summer window, Barcelona’s biggest asset and arguably the best football player in the world Lionel Messi, publicly held the club for ransom, demanding to be let go for free, before Barcelona told him that a clause that would usually allow for that, had already lapsed, and Barcelona went as far as refusing to sanction a free transfer and demanded that any potential suitor match his buyout clause if they wanted their academy product’s services. Now imagine if Barcelona had caved in, and found “unhappiness” as grounds enough to relinquish their biggest asset? What type of precedents would that set for other players? Similarly for WPRFU, had they caved in to Kolisi’s demands, they would eventually have to cave into those of Kitshoff, Mbonambi and Willemse for example.
Point 2, exceptions: exceptions are a very valid claim and there are examples of situations where they are applicable. What are some of those conditions? When the player wants to retire before his contract expires, when the club and the long serving player are on good mutual terms or when the long serving player is being released to a league where he can no longer hurt the club e.g when a Xavi or Iniesta wants to leave Barcelona ahead of time at a veteran age to Asian clubs, Wayne Rooney being allowed to rejoin Everton on a free a year before the expiry of his contract, or maybe when the Bulls release the likes of Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez at a veteran age to overseas clubs.
Point 3. Service; years of service don’t necessarily automatically equate to years of good relations or good current relations nor do they automatically qualify you to get the type of exit/sendoff you might feel you deserve. Going back to the Messi example, his representatives were hoping that, the Barcelona board would show their “human side” and let Messi go for free as a sign of gratitude for the years he has served them and the trophy truimphs he has contributed to. But that argument has its own reverse argument, where Barcelona could also claim that it is Messi who owes them the gratitude for the years spent developing him and giving him a platform, there is also the factor that he has been well compensated for his troubles along the way too.
Kolisi seemingly didn’t qualify for the “exception” rule because, it is no secret that WPRFU did not want to let go of their biggest asset, and the two parties pulling in opposite directions then created the seemingly bad blood between them. Also, the fact that he was 29, still at an age where he can continue to play his best rugby at tip top shape, in a league where he can hurt the Stormers/WP, further disqualifies him from the exception rule, but rather strengthens WPRFU’s stance on insisting on the transfer fee.
Then just like the Messi situation, the 11 years of service could easily be flipped into a conversation where Kolisi could be the one who is asked to show respect and gratitude for the 11 years WPRFU spent developing and honing his skills. In fact, WPRFU agreeing to allow Kolisi to leave upon getting a transfer fee alone, should be commended, as in the midst of all the hysteria, emotions and sentiment, WPRFU were still not obligated to allow their top asset to leave while still under contract, at any price.
Although not ideal, there was nothing stopping WPRFU from forcing Kolisi to see out his contract and even in his unhappy state he would’ve had to get on with it like a professional. Also, while us humans and fans are more inclined to yearn for a happy ending and fairytale story coming together, we also need to be reminded that reality doesn’t always work like that, and the biggest reality is that at the end of the day WPRFU are a business and Kolisi was an asset, their job is to protect their assets or get the best compensation in order to sell it on, so why would any business in the financial state WPRFU are in, pass up on a R 1 million that they rightfully deserve?
So all in all, in the midst of all the hysteria, emotions and sentiment, WPRFU must be commended for keeping their focus and remembering that they’re a business and they need to start running themselves like one again. Yes they have been in shambles in previous instances, but if you are going to criticize them for letting go of opportunities to inject money into their union before, you have to applaud them for making sure they cash in on their biggest asset now. In the midst of the turmoil and the deserved criticism, WPRFU laid down a marker, stood their ground and were right to do so. Both Kolisi and WPRFU came to a professional agreement that suited both parties and at the end of the day, both parties walked away with a degree of satisfaction, professionally as well as amicably.