The 21st century has not been kind to the Pride of Ellis Park (yes I know it’s called something else now but bare with me – there is an historical lesson in all this). The union last won South Africa’s most prized domestic title, the Currie Cup, in 1999, and although there was a glimmer of hope in the early 2000’s under Kiwi coach Laurie Mains, the once mighty Lions have been reduced to whimpering little pussy-cats.
For the best part of the last 10 years the Lions Rugby Union seemed to move from one crisis to the next – if it is not at boardroom level there is some crisis with the coaches or the players. It is this constant crisis management which has seen the union focus on everything but results, both on the field and off it.
Last year it was announced that the Lions have taken a major step forward when 49% of their shares were sold to the Guma TAC group. An investment reported at the time to be worth around R80-million. It was hailed as the dawn of a new era and the beginning of the dominance we became used to in the 90’s from this union. Fans became optimistic again, rugby lovers expected the sleeping giant to awake again, but in the end it proved yet another false dawn when it was recently announced that the same group have pulled out of the deal.
The Guma group claimed that they weren’t allowed to form part of the decision making processes of the union from a commercial level, which made little sense for any investor as a large portion of the money and how to use it was theirs. It also made claims that the union is bankrupt, something the union has refuted.
All in all, it was another very public, and very ugly end to what promised to be the start of something great.
They were in this situation before
The year was 1984, and the union were R37-million in debt to what was known as Volkskas Bank at that stage – a massive amount of money even in today’s terms. It was so bad that the interest on the debt amounted to a staggering R20 000 per day!
This situation forced the president of the time, Jannie le Roux, to be ousted through a club revolt, and in came one Dr. Louis Luyt – a self-made millionaire.
Under the guidance of Luyt and in a relatively short period of 9 years, the union paid off all its debt in 1993 and went on to become one of the most successful teams of the 90’s and also, one of the richest.
The union did have to sell its soul a bit for a short period of time to eventually wipe out the dept, but in the end they became the most powerful union in SA Rugby, if not the world.
De ja vu
The year is 2008, the Lions are again in trouble apparently owing millions in debt and also losing players by the dozen. Their on-field results are shocking and the clubs decide to step in. Out goes president Prof. Jannie Ferreira, and in comes Kevin de Klerk.
The union gets audited, the players get audited, and changes are aplenty! Some guys gets appointed and starts showing immediate results and some okes get fired for incompetence – most importantly, changes are taking place and the results of these are starting to show.
It will take time
It will be easy to get negative about the Lions Rugby Union, there is plenty of material and references out there to support this stance, but it would be unfair.
Most people will point at the recent failed partnership between Guma TAC and the Lions union as an example of how ‘incompetent’ the people in the union are, especially given the claims of bankruptcy which was levelled against the union by the outgoing partners.
We have seen the audited financial statement of the Lions, and we disagree. Yes it does not look pretty, but I can pretty much guarantee you not one union in South Africa’s financial statements looks great. In fact, it was suggested a year back that the only union in South African rugby to turn an ACTUAL profit in the last couple of years, was the Griffons rugby union!
It is not our place to discuss the financial statements of the Lions rugby union in public, they can do that themselves, but two independent financial experts that analysed these statements on our behalf both agree that it is not an impossible situation to reverse. Some bad business practices in the past are still affecting the union today, but it is nothing that cannot be fixed under the guidance of a clever and astute business man, with the help of investors from the outside – as was the case in the mid-80’s.
It took Dr. Luyt 9 years to turn the Lions around in the 80’s and early 90’s, and although I do not think or believe it could or should take that long today, it is not going to happen overnight.
It all has to start with small things being fixed one problem at a time, starting with the right person to lead them, and every single person I have spoken to suggests that Kevin de Klerk is as good as any available.
The right attitude
Perhaps even more than the right leader, is having the right attitude and there is no better example of how this has changed at the Lions than what happened a week ago.
According to reports, Lions scrumhalf Jano Vermaak promised his coach and boss that he will stay loyal to the union at least until the end of the year and that he is not in talks with any other union. All of a sudden we receive a press release that the Blue Bulls has signed Vermaak!
Most of us expected a massive backlash from the Lions Rugby union, with threats to sue everyone involved and doing everything to hang onto one of their star players – I mean it is what we became used to from them! What did we get? Nothing.
A week later Jano runs out for his new team the Blue Bulls and the Lions simply carry on with business, beating yet another team to retain their unbeaten run in this year’s Currie Cup – also something we are not used to given the recent past of the union.
It’s not surprising that in this day and age of microwave dinners and entertainment on demand that fans are frustrated from not seeing results sooner.
My advice to you, start by celebrating the small victories, it’s the start of winning the bigger battles, and there are a lot of small, but very important victories the Lions Rugby Union are currently winning…