To understand the bizarre and baffling situation the South African Rugby League finds itself in, you must first understand its history in this country. Back in the 1960s, a rag-tag group of South Africans travelled to Australia to represent the country in rugby league. Back then, league was one of the first sports that had started to professionalise in England and pay players for their services.
Upon their return, players knew that if they were to ever play league again, they would be banned from playing union. Even kids at school level who were interested in the sport were told that they would not be allowed to play union should they sign up for league.
And so, rugby league was effectively banned. Even back then, this was so typical of rugby’s elitism and a small-mindedness which persists to this day and which is quite evident in the struggles of the South African Rugby League (SARL) trying to be recognised by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc).
For the uninitiated, rugby league is a 13-man sport that’s like rugby, but not quite. The rules are somewhat different and some call it the most physically demanding of all forms of rugby. Play is brisk and there is little time wasted on contesting possession. Think of it as Sevens on steroids. While it has the pace and the flair of sevens, it also carries on for a full 80 minutes.
Since returning to the South African sporting fray in 1994, South African rugby league has struggled to find its identity in the South African sporting landscape. While the governing body has had its administrative ups and downs in the last few years, at the heart of its struggle is Sascoc’s refusal to recognise the sport as a federation separate to rugby union.
Despite rugby union and rugby league being governed by different bodies internationally, they refuse to budge in South Africa. At the heart of the issue is the Sascoc constitution which dictates the recognition of members. Article 8.1.6 says: “Sascoc does not recognise more than one National Sport Federation of a similar or same sport type.”
Thus Sascoc is saying that rugby league is not currently considered a distinct sport and that, despite it being governed by a different international body, it cannot get independent recognition.
But here is the contradiction: Article 8.1.2 of Sascoc’s constitution says members of “national sports federations affiliated to other major International Federations governing sports presently not included in the programme of the Olympic Games” can also be recognised. Since Rugby League is not an Olympic sport and SARL is affiliated to the Rugby League International Federation, surely it should be recognised independently?
It’s a challenge that has been hindering the sport’s progress for many years and Kobus Botha, the current SARL president, is all too familiar with the battle.
“We’ve had negotiations at all levels. We’ve had discussions with Tubby Reddy (Sascoc), Jurie Roux and Oregan Hoskins (both Saru) on numerous occasions,” he tells the Daily Maverick.
“Sascoc insist that we should fall under Saru which would essentially mean that they would determine what we can and can’t do and which funding we can receive. We even have letters from the IRB stating clearly that we are different, but they cannot make room for us,” he adds.
It is a baffling situation made even more so by the fact that Sascoc seem to contradict themselves in a way. For example, Sascoc recognises ice hockey and hockey separately. Karate and Judo are both recognised separately as members despite both being considered “martial arts” – which is also recognised separately. Even sheep sheering is recognised as a federation.
SARL is a registered sporting association in the country and has support from the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF). At one stage during the ongoing saga, Roux even sent a letter detailing that union and league are two different things, but Sascoc refused to budge. Through all of this, the Department of Sport and Recreation shrug their shoulders saying they cannot give Sascoc any instruction, they can only advise them on a number of aspects.
For SARL, this is an immense challenge and it stops the sport’s development dead in its tracks. Currently, because it is not recognised by Sascoc, SARL cannot receive financial assistance from the government. It can’t be played in schools and corporate support and sponsorship is even harder to come by. Technically, the caps the players earn when playing internationally don’t even count since Sascoc is responsible for awarding national colours to athletes. Those representing South Africa at all events also have to fund these trips themselves. Event rips to World Cups – at junior and senior level – are largely paid out of the pockets of those called up to play. The organisation endorses the applications for bidding and hosting of international events, providing that specific criteria are all met.
Last year, SARL was willing to give up the fight for independent recognition and be absorbed by Saru. While far from ideal, it seemed the only way to go forward.
“We were pushed into that hole because of the refusal to be recognised independently, but to grow the sport, we had no other choice,” Botha says.
Saru and SARL agreed that the two sports would be overseen by one committee while having separate constitutions and created a memorandum of understanding which had to be approved by a two-thirds majority at Saru’s annual general meeting. Botha says Roux had told Botha he was confident of the memorandum of understanding passing, but developments hit another snag.
SARL is not just fighting a battle for independent recognition, but an ongoing court case, with a group of former SARL officials claiming they are actually the recognised governing body of the sport in South Africa also causing a hindrance. This rebel body is not registered or recognised by the RLIF, but Botha says that Roux felt that the vote on the memorandum of understanding could not progress until the court case was settled.
All things considered, it seemed a rather convenient excuse because SARL seems to be fighting against the self-interest and self-preservation of the powers that be in rugby union. Botha says that at one stage during the many years of negotiations – now dragging on for over five years – Hoskins had told SARL that the “financial cake is only so big”. The men in charge of Saru and Sascoc are, of course, big rugby union men and protecting the code is to their financial benefit.
“They see us as a threat. We are the sleeping giants of sport. I think people are getting a bit tired of Rugby Union. So imagine a new sport arrives that’s more exciting than union, people will be intrigued,” Botha says.
He’s not wrong. The 2013 Rugby League World Cup, held in the UK, smashed all records, drawing an aggregate crowd of 458,463 with 74,468 of those being international visitors. There were eight sell-outs and eight stadium record crowds for rugby league matches. Tournament director Nigel Wood confirmed profits of at least £3.7-million with the towns and city that hosted the matches pocketing a pretty penny.
This kind of money can greatly benefit not only the sport of rugby league in South Africa, but also boost the tourism industry. South Africa is already a tourist favourite and becomes even more so when there is an international sporting event for fans to flock to. But without Sascoc’s endorsement, being awarded a World Cup is difficult.
But the fight is not confined to the boardrooms. Union’s elitism has spilled out onto the playing fields too. SARL is recognised by sports councils in both Gauteng and the Western Cape, but Botha says the players have often run into trouble when trying to practise or play.
“We are often bullied by union clubs where we are told that we cannot play here or there because it’s their turf, but these are municipal fields. Saru has even gone so far as to write a letter to Gauteng’s sport’s council telling them they cannot support us,” Botha says.
“Sascoc and Saru have killed us at point blank range,” Botha adds.
A fledgling rugby league in South Africa can only be a good thing for sport. Just last week Saru president Oregan Hoskins bemoaned the overload of professionals in the country’s professional rugby union franchises. A fully functional league system could provide more playing opportunities for professional rugby players as it is not unheard of for players to switch between the two – Sonny Bill Williams being the most famous example of a player who has done so successfully. That Saru and Sascoc are unable to see its value because of its self-interest is a crying shame. DM