Q&A: Saru boss Mark Alexander on World Cup, Allister Coetzee...
MK: Why should you be elected for the next four years and why should the South African rugby public have faith in your leadership?
MA: I am only a year into massive changes implemented since I was asked to lead the organisation after Oregan Hoskins resigned in September 2016.
To understand the advances we’ve made one has to revisit where the organisation was at the time of my predecessor’s resignation. We had failed the government transformation targets. Absa had withdrawn as a sponsor from the Springboks, Sevens and Currie Cup because of lack of transformation.
BMW had withdrawn from the Springboks. We had failed to raise R130 million in sponsorship because of a perception Saru was at odds with the government.
Corporate investor confidence was at an all-time low, and so was our Springbok performance. We had lost 24 senior players to overseas or retirement, lost four Springbok captains in Victor Matfield, Jean de Villiers, Fourie du Preez and Schalk Burger and were guilty of poor player succession planning.
These were dark days. My first priority was to implement a 100-day operational strategic plan to address everything that was dark about 2016. This turnaround strategy involved Corporate Investor Roadshows, that included six events that were attended by 480 corporate CEOs and directors.
Corporate South Africa had to see first-hand what we were changing. A strong rebranding and sponsorship programme was introduced and there was immediate governance reform.
The constitution was changed, the Board would be made up of six elected and five independents; there would be female representation and the Board would be majority black.
We restricted committees to streamline decision-making, the appointments of the CEO and National Coach were moved from the General Council to the Executive Council.
We revamped competitions and this included reducing Super Rugby from six teams to four, changing the Currie Cup format to strength versus strength and the introduction of an amateur Gold Cup National Club competition, the SuperSport Challenge, which meant taking rugby back to the communities.
We also for the first time in our history introduced two teams into Europe’s PRO14 competition.
Financially, we cut the budget to secured income streams only and cancelled unfunded projects.
We also had to address the Springbok team performance of 2016 and after a review we completed coaching and conditioning indabas, established basic skills coaching and conditioning blueprints, which had not been done in 14 years, and we strengthened the 2017 Bok coaching staff with Brendon Venter and Franco Smith.
We gave the coach of the time, Allister Coetzee, every support and, like with the business as a whole, there were measurables. Unfortunately, Allister did not meet those measurables.
MK: Was Allister’s appointment in 2016 the wrong decision? The public and media believed those who appointed him should have been fired too, including you in your capacity (at the time) of deputy president.
MA: We believed Allister to be the right choice. The two years he was in charge did not match our expectation. The results were not good enough, our transformation targets were not being met and as an organisation we had to act decisively to ensure the Springboks, at the 2019 World Cup, would be transformed as agreed to with government, and that they would be realistic title contenders.
We had to make the change. We would have failed as a leadership in not making the change.
MK: Could Allister’s dismissal have been done differently?
MA: We showed the necessary leadership to effect the change. I know some people wanted it to happen more publicly, more swiftly and perhaps more dramatically after the Springboks lost to Wales in Cardiff.
But we had to respect legal and labour law processes. It was handled with calm and integrity. As a leadership we all wanted Allister to succeed because we want a successful Springbok team.
The same applies to every one of our national teams. The same Saru leadership serves at a time when the Sevens Springboks are the most successful in the country’s history.
I don’t think it is quite as simple as saying those who hired Allister should go because at the time there was justified optimism that he was the right choice based on his Super Rugby and Currie Cup record and Springbok record as a World Cup-winning assistant coach.
MK: Is it realistic to think the Springboks can reach the transformation targets of 50 percent for the 2019 World Cup when some of the regions are consistently failing to select black players?
MA: Yes. We will reach those government targets and the new coach (Rassie Erasmus) is confident that it won’t be an issue.
He also shares my view that transformation doesn’t compromise excellence if the identification of the player is right and that transformation is as much about the change of attitude as it is about playing a numbers game. It is not a line item.
Saru, as a sporting organisation that operates as a business, has to constantly transform or the game won’t survive. The government assesses us on seven categories of transformation, with the Springboks and demographic profile just one of those categories.
The others include access, skills and capability development, performance, contribution to government priorities and good governance. We are on track.
Springbok Number 8 Uzair Cassiem and Siya Kolisi during an international match. Photo: SA Rugby
MK: You say you are on track, but media was very critical that there wasn’t a black or female nominee for the one available elected Saru executive position. Do you share this criticism?
MA: Our game has to transform. It is the message we are constantly reinforcing with our provincial affiliates. We can only lead by example and the make-up of SA Rugby’s five Independent Board members is two black, one female and two white.
The Board totals 11, and of those six currently two are white and four black. Within Saru’s business structure there is an emphasis on female inclusiveness and two of our five most senior managers are women. It is something that will only continue to grow and improve under my leadership should I be re-elected.
MK: Should you be elected as President on April 6, what is your measurable over the next four years?
MA: A transformed and successful business in the office, and a transformed and successful national team on the field.@mark_keohane
Independent on Saturday