South African Rugby Union CE Jurie Roux delivered the most powerful and poignant of messages to the South African rugby public on all things Springboks, Super Rugby and #BlackLivesMatter, writes Mark Keohane.
Roux, composed and clear, spoke with an echoed calm about rugby in South Africa in 2020, the global landscape and also reinforced his and his Federation’s unanimous support of black rugby players speaking out on prejudice and telling their respective stories.
This was Roux’s most impressive afternoon as a leader. He showed he was firmly in charge operationally and his strategic intent on the way forward for South African rugby matched the potency of Rassie Erasmus’s Springboks game plan in the victorious 2019 World Cup final.
I could say Roux rocked but that would be a contradiction because he was more Mozart than Metallica in his delivery of the detail. His composition was a thing of beauty.
If you are a South African rugby supporter, you had to be inspired.
South Africa is for now going nowhere when it comes to Sanzaar and southern hemisphere rugby: The world champion Springboks, who won the Rugby Championship in 2019, are very much a part of the Rugby Championship, as per existing Sanzaar contractual commitments and obligations.
Super Rugby is under discussion, more so because of the effect of Covid-19. Each of Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa have extensively explored how to counter the knock-on effect of Covid in the early part of 2021, when Super Rugby traditionally is played.
There was nothing underhanded in New Zealand announcing their Super Rugby plan for 2021. Roux and his executive have been kept in the loop by the Kiwi administration. Equally, Roux has kept his counterparts in Sanzaar in the loop as South Africa seeks the best alternative in 2021 if, as expected, Super Rugby can’t be played in its current guise. Specifically, he detailed the international travel (in and out) of so many teams at a time when Covid-related travel regulations could not accommodate the quick turnaround of teams flying in and out on a fortnightly basis to all four Sanzaar countries.
Roux was consistent with his message of the past two years that SA Rugby is constantly exploring opportunities in the northern hemisphere to dovetail with existing competitions in the southern hemisphere.
He confirmed the Springboks would not play in South Africa in 2020 because of Covid and that the discussions were ongoing for New Zealand, Covid-free, to host the Rugby Championship. While not ideal for South Africa, Australia and Argentina, it was the only logical option to ensure a competition that could be played in front of crowds and it also meant the broadcasting deals would be honoured.
Roux detailed the plans to host a South African domestic competition, which would involve the four Super Rugby and two Pro 14 franchises, as well as Griquas and the Pumas. SA Rugby was working with government and was aligned with government on what the safest option would be, with an in-bubble and out of bubble option under review.
These matches would not be played in front of crowds but would be broadcast, as per the existing global broadcasting arrangements. The plan was to start the competition in the last week of August.
Roux, who a week earlier, had spoken with conviction on the power of the British & Irish Lions eight match rugby extravaganza in South Africa in 2021, again inspired faith with his prose on #BlackLivesMatter and all other social issues, including farm murders.
It was heartening to hear a leader speak of dialogue and his rhetoric was about the need to listen and to give black players a platform to speak. Roux was insistent that the uncomfortable discussions had to happen and SA Rugby, as one of the country’s most influential and prominent federations, wanted to be a leader in listening and taking on board what was being shared. Then it would be about turning a haunted past into a healthy future through action.
SARU President Mark Alexander, in the past few days, was as forthright in his response to critique about the lack of black coaches in South African professional rugby.
My experience of Alexander, since his appointment as president, has been one of transparency. He has shared his thinking liberally and never shirked those moments when he feels he or SA Rugby, as a collective, has got it wrong.
Alexander, through his presidential leadership, has had an impact on investors and sponsors and in the past two years has done an inordinate amount of work with Roux when it comes to renewed corporate faith in South African rugby.
Roux and Alexander in the past 18 months have been winning away from the field in a way that mirrors the miracle of Siya Kolisi’s Boks at the World Cup in Japan in 2019.
I have written about South African rugby since 1992 and briefly worked for SA Rugby and the Springboks, and never have I known the game to be as healthy or as strong as it is in 2020. I have never experienced such unity and stability.
There is a plan, on and off the field, and there is collaboration at a national level that includes and doesn’t fracture the regional and provincial importance to South African rugby.
There is as much conviction as there is hope that South Africa will host a magnificent Lions visit in 2021. It will be the rugby story of the year and one of the most talked about sporting events of 2021.
For now, in July 2020, Roux acknowledged the relevance of #BlackLivesMatter and every social discussion about prejudice. The intent with which he spoke was comforting.
‘In terms of Blacks Lives Matter specifically, and towards the issues that are currently on the table, I think we need to own up in terms of those conversations and not steer away from those conversations. The first thing we need to do is let people tell their stories, but more importantly we’ve got to listen to those stories and then hear what they’re saying. That’s always been the issue, letting people voice what it is they believe is wrong.
‘We’ve got to continue dialogue and we’ve got to figure it out together and determine if we need to adapt things to help figure it out then, absolutely, we have to do that. What we should not do is steer away from the uncomfortable conversations and the things people refer to as the awkward truths, because it’s the realities of our lives. These issues are very serious matters that transcends way beyond sport and are part of our daily lives.’
Amen to Roux’s words and Amen to his leadership.