PORT ELIZABETH - South African Rugby Union president Mark Alexander chats to Independent Media rugby writer Wynona Louw about transformation, his goals for rugby and his favourite book.
How have the first 10 months on the job been?
When I took over Saru we were in a very dark place. There were a lot of things wrong in this organisation. What was also alarming was that the last time we had collaboration was about 15 years ago. So those are one of the points that I brought into my 100-day plan.
One was the governance reform, and that was the biggest change we’ve made in South African rugby in 100 years. We’re now more professionally structured to run rugby. We’re now sponsorship friendly. We’ve had eight road shows in the last couple of months.
And now you can see the results, we’re signing iconic brands, we’re signing sponsors and we’ll be announcing more soon. Rugby is scrutinised every day, so you have to be on your toes all the time and make sure you tick all the boxes. We’re trying to run rugby like a business, we’re working on that.
What has been the biggest positive so far?
170 000 kids have been introduced to rugby and we’re tracking them. Our target for 2019 was 190 000, so we’re on track. We’re the leaders in this World Rugby programme, and we’re excited about that.
We dropped teams out of Super Rugby and we introduced them to a new competition. Maybe we can introduce something where two other teams can compete in another international competition. We’re changing the way we’re delivering the game and we’re changing what happens around the game, but it’s not going to happen overnight.
We’ve successfully submitted our Rugby World Cup bid and we’ve got a formidable bid. We tick all the boxes and their score card, and we can be ready tomorrow.
Are you happy with the rate of transformation in rugby?
Look at the school team that has been picked - 53% black. And they weren’t picked as tokens, they’re there on merit. It’s the same with the Springbok team - the players of colour are there on merit.
We pleaded with the government and asked them to please help us get into public schools. 80% of public schools don’t do sport, they don’t even do Phys Ed (physical education).
Transformation starts at school level. And we (Department of Sport and Recreation, and the Department of Education) must sort it out and get to an agreement of how we’re going to get into school sports.
What did you make of the Lions only fielding three black players regularly this season?
We must also look at the geographics. Traditionally, rugby is played among black players in the Eastern Cape. Look at the Lions’ players below the Super Rugby team. You know when I’ll be worried? When I see that the Under-20, U19 and their SuperSport Challenge teams don’t have players of colour, because those are the feeder teams. We’ll get there.
There are more players of colour in the country playing rugby than white players, 40% of our membership comes out of the Eastern Cape. We have to make sure that they get the players of colour into the top teams, but point is, they play. It’s about creating opportunities, and we’re doing that.
Last year our SA Schools team was only 43% (black), now it’s 53%. So I’m comfortable that we’re on track and that we’ll reach our targets. We just need to keep monitoring that our member unions are giving every opportunity to a player of colour to excel. A couple of years ago we were very concerned and wondered why the players of colour weren’t coming through.
It’s simple things like access to a gym (that kept them back), so we made that intervention a couple of years ago when government gave us R35million, and we helped four academies in Port Elizabeth, Border and SWD, and now those boys are coming through.
We bought services, we paid a nutritionist to help the boys, we paid a biokineticist to work with them, we gave them access to a gym. Guys like Makazola Mapimpi, Lizo Gqoboka, Sergeal Petersen, they all came from our programs. And that’s gratifying.
But people look selectively, they look at the shop window that is the Springboks. And transformation isn’t just about the Springboks. So we need to target the 80% to keep it alive. Transformation is a survival plan, and if we don’t do that, our rugby will not be competitive in future.
The system has failed white people as well in the way they select kids. The kids who are selected for Craven Week mostly come from the so-called rugby schools. And the lower-income or poorer schools don’t get that. Sometimes we miss people, that’s why we want to put our systems in place so that we don’t miss those black diamonds or those white diamonds.
When the Springboks win, it changes the mood of the nation. Rugby helps with social cohesion in this country, so we will play our part. That’s part of our social responsibility to government - to make sure that we also create jobs and keep kids off the streets and help them play a structured sport. It’s not just a rugby thing. We want to do it because it’s the right thing to do.
When did you first realise that you loved rugby?
“I’ve played rugby since I was a little boy and I’m still involved at my club. My roots in rugby go back 100 years. My dad had his own club, but I never played for him. Rugby is in my bones, my grandsons also play rugby. With the (Super Rugby) final I bought tickets for all of my kids and my gardener. We’re all Lions supporters. We’re from Joburg and I played for Transvaal.”
Club rugby is very competitive nowadays. What do you think of the system’s impact on higher-level rugby?
Club rugby is far from dead. Eastern Province might not be the wealthiest people, but they play rugby there. They have 120 clubs and at a meeting you have 1 000 people sitting in.
Now we’ve got the South African Rugby Education Foundation, which is education and rugby. We can’t give nutrition to the world, but we can bring in those boys with talent and put them in a program and give them education and training. And if you drop in one, you’re out of the program. We build well-rounded individuals, so that if the youngster doesn’t make it, he at least has a job.
Who were your idols growing up?
There were lots. Guys like Salie Fredericks ... there were so many. We had a lot of good players, we had stars. Guys weren’t given the opportunity to play like today.
When did you know that you wanted to become an administrator?
I had no ambitions of becoming an administrator, I just wanted to play. I misbehaved on the field and I was suspended and that’s why I became an administrator at my club - part of my punishment was to be the secretary and then I became the vice president.”
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
I had a good rugby career. I played for Transvaal for more than 10 years. Back then, we never flew and we never lived in hotels. We travelled by road, sometimes for 24 hours, but if you asked me if I would do it again, I’d say yes. I learnt so much and it built character. We stayed with wealthy people and very poor people, we even slept in a church that had no roof. And those are things you can’t buy, you can’t buy that experience. That made a better person of me - experiencing different people, cultures and families. Today you go stay in a hotel and you make no friends. Sport is about making friends, it’s not about winning so much, it’s about interaction. When you leave there you’re wealthier because of meeting new people.”
If there was one thing you could change in rugby, what would it be?
I would sort out the scrums. Time is wasted on resets.
Best try you’ve ever seen?
Fourie du Preez’s try in the corner in the 2015 World Cup.
Is there a book you’ve read over and over again?
Long Walk to Freedom, and I also read a lot of business-strategy stuff.
One of your biggest goals for your term?
We can be even more powerful, but we need to work together. If the game can survive beyond 2030, then we’ve made it. We should be sustainable, but based on good governance.
Message for the Boks?
The boys must go out there and play the way they played against the French - as a collective with one purpose in mind. We back them and they must just go out there and deliver.
They must play their brand of rugby and play for themselves, the country and their families, and if they do that week in and week out, even if they lose because you’re not going to win every match they’ll do great. We are the first to admit that we let the players down last year, but together we’ll sort it out.