Gavin Rich for Business Day Sport
When Brian van Zyl started to near the end of his long stint as CEO of the Sharks, he was grooming Rudolf Straeuli to be his successor. It was the Sharks’ loss and the Lions gain that it didn’t turn out that way.
History reflects that Van Zyl never saw out the end of his contracted period and was replaced by former Springbok captain and Sharks playing stalwart John Smit. The people responsible for making that decision were going for the name and what Smit had done on the rugby field rather than any experience accumulated in sports administration.
The Durban union has paid for it, with history reflecting that the South African rugby union credited with inventing professionalism in this country embarked on a downhill curve both on the field, in terms of results, and off it with reference to their financial situation, since Van Zyl’s departure.
Not long after the revolution that changed the whole Sharks operation in 2013, Straeuli, suspecting he didn’t have a role in the new dispensation – he was the Sharks commercial manager responsible for recruitment and contracting – decided to take up the position of Lions CEO.
It may not have been a coincidence that Straeuli’s arrival back at the union he had represented at the end of his playing career was the start of the Lions’ rise to their current position as the most successful union in South Africa.
The balance of power is now measured by what is achieved in the full-strength Super Rugby competition. The Lions were just edged out of being conference champions by a controversial draw against the Stormers in Cape Town in Straeuli’s first full season in 2015, but they haven’t looked back since then.
They comfortably won the South African Conference in 2016 and 2017, playing in the competition final in both those years, and they look destined to make it a hattrick of local titles in 2018.
Not that Straeuli will be happy to just be ahead locally. It is understood that after that first season, where the Lions made dramatic strides from where they had been before, Straeuli called in the Lions coaches, who were understandably happy with the campaign, and dressed them down for getting ahead of themselves.
“This isn’t a time for celebration, you haven’t won anything yet,” he said, or words to that effect.
Straeuli knows a thing or two about the importance of having the CEO and the head coach on the same page. The foundation of the Straeuli/Van Zyl relationship was built when Straeuli was the Sharks coach working under Van Zyl in 2001, a year the Sharks made the final after being rock bottom the season before.
But Straeuli got to feel the effects of a poor working relationship with the CEO in his disastrous final year as Springbok coach in 2003. That was the nadir of Straeuli’s career in rugby, and even though he proved his talent spotting abilities then by blooding many of the players who later won the World Cup under Jake White, for a long time he was remembered for the infamous Kamp Staaldraad fiasco and other events that marred that World Cup year.
Straeuli though was still young as a coach, and it was only out of a sense of duty that he took the job. He knew he lacked experience, but when I interviewed him for my book on the Bok coaches in 2013, he gave me the impression he felt he might have survived had he received better communication and support from Sarfu instead of being made to feel that he was man alone in dealing with the massive pressures faced by a national coach.
At the time of the book interviews, Straeuli was still at the Sharks. He spoke perceptively and passionately about the challenges not only Sharks and South African rugby faced, but the sport as a whole – both on and off the field. He came up with ideas and solutions that showed CEO potential.
He has travelled a road that Smit and other chief executives who have a playing background didn’t – after being a player he was a coach, and then he worked in the commercial side of the administration.
By the accounts of those who have dealt with him, meaning other union CEO’s and even coaches, Straeuli has become a highly respected professional administrator. When Straeuli became Bok coach the timing was out because he hadn’t done the time, but for his current role his accumulation of experience has made the timing perfect.