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Tribute To South African Rugby League

This Article has been copied out by me from The Open Rugby Magazine

League In South Africa, written by Barry Haslam

Late in 1990, Rugby League in South Africa was quietly reborn. Two young expatriates - Dave Southern from Widnes and Tony Barker from Wigan - placed an advertisement in a northern Johannesburg paper and attracted sufficient interest to hold in inaugural lunch.

The latter was successful and a string of useful acquisitions came onto the first board. Trevor Lake, the legendary Wigan winger (now a mature and respected businessman); Tony Lane, a former Lock Lane forward from the early 'seventies; Jacey Strauss, a dynamic entrepreneur General manager of Pepsi Cola and ex-Northern Transvaal footballer and union-maverick, disillusioned with them years before his time. They needed a referee and got one in myself, a recent émigré with 1000 games behind him. So it went that initial board grew to 14. Lake was president and Strauss was Chairman.

It must be mentioned that South Africa in 1990 was a fairly barren place. The economy was being slowly suffocated by sanctions but the government was denying it some of the more vicious apartheid laws of the 'sixties and 'seventies, particularly compulsory segregated living areas for blacks, pass laws were easing but Mandela was still in prison and some secret negotiations had taken place.

The country was devoid of any international sports competition or external culture. South Africans were dominated by an aggressive, dour culture - Afrikaans. Rugby Union was powerful, rich, arrogant and insular. It considered the Springboks as un-ordained world champions and all else, except the All Blacks, to be insignificant. Millions of black people lived in pitiful poverty, devoid of basic services, amenities and sports facilities. The Afrikaners particularly, lavished huge concrete stadiums on themselves for the local union clubs. Many white schools played in athletics stadiums that Eton and Harrow would be proud of.

Rugby Leagues first office was a small, converted barn, leased to it by Tony Barker. Dave Southern was a full-time, paid 'jack of all trades' and he set about creating a couple of club sides and did some initial coaching in the black schools of Northern Johannesburg, and Mamelodi in Pretoria. The latter attracted so many township kids that clinics were often over run but the largely expatriate white board and its white players were enthusiastic.

The games first pale missionaries arrived in the form of David Oxley and Harry Jepson, both long standing friends of the South African Rugby League. The British Rugby League left a small but appreciated donation and sporadic friendly games occurred - always refereed by myself- or rather that is when we weren't bedevilled by dressingrooms being locked, floodlights not being switched on, no balls - typical growth pains in an amateur environment.

The board had grown to 14 by now and it was obvious that its energy was not going to be fed by odd friendlies and township clinics. It passed its first commercial test by deciding not to go to the 1992 student world cup in Australia, due to a lack of a sponser.

It had, however made contact with a Melbourne based entrepreneur - Glenn Johnson - who in turn, saw potential of Russia coming to South Africa for a test. Johnson was beginning to dabble in league merchandising, light years before his time. Importantly, he brought to South Africa his cousin, Paul Matete, the ex-Kiwi international and present Rhino coach.

Meanwhile, Jacey Strauss had set about fundraising with an incredible fervour, literally throwing his whole office's effort behind it. Effectively he was running the league, Lake was rarely around and the first seeds of a power struggle were sown. Strauss persuaded a Pretoria motor dealer to sponser an inner-city championship in September 1992. Staged in Pretoria over two days it was a resounding success. Teams from Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and East London took part. Rob Atkinson of Halifax and Jim Mills of Widnes attended as enthusiastic observers. For the record, Durban beat Pretoria 8-6 in a very hard final. I refereed seven open age games in 24 hours - probably some kind of record. I think I decided at that point that referee development was paramount!

Two further plusses occurred: Paul Matete used the tournament as a launch pad for his first ever-national team to play Russia that November. Secondly, and very importantly, the league had attracted Mike Bardsley, an enthusiast who had access to videos, editing equipment and contacts at S.A.B.C - The state broadcaster. Bardsley videod the inner-city competition and some black clinics and put together a good promotional package. S.A.B.C showed it and the response was good. It was the forerunner of an 18-month TV slot and an explosion of the game in 1993 and 1994.

Amidst all this expansion, a most remarkable humanitarian acts occurred. Tony Barker's mother, Cynthia, a Wigan based businesswoman, had started a kit collection in the Wigan area for black kids. The result was a staggering two tons of kit and boots and hundreds of little black kids running around - all called 'Ellery'! Sadly little remained of that kit amongst those communities working under our clinics.

The Russian Bears arrived in November 1992; Jacey Strauss having found a SA based sponser Russian sponsor to pay for food, accommodation, matches etc. Dave Southern's good work in the townships had given us useful political allies to get approval for the tour. The then National sports Congress were recognised as the regulatory body for South African International sports activity. The theory being that white South Africans would be denied competition until apartheid was removed. Anyway, we had no such political baggage, such as cricket, where Gatting's tour was called off and the infamous 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand.

On the field, the Russian tour was a great success. They were quite a useful looking side with ravenous appetites and little interest in any culture. The first test was played at Wits University in Johannesburg and The Bears deservedly beat the Rhinos in an exciting game 30-26, before a crowd of 1500, one Jamie Bloem now of Halifax, making his debut. The press was curious and fairly complementary. The circus then moved onto Cape Town where a very well drilled local side beat the visitors 22-12. Two brilliant length of the field tries by Bertus Enslin killed off the Russians before a jubilant crowd of 3000. For the record, nine of the Capetonians were black and the team was coached by Martin Burmingham from Dewsbury. Enslin, incidentally, turned down a contract with Wakefield Trinity.

The second test played in Pretoria attracted a solid crowd of 2600 and, again, Russia had the edge, 22-18, surviving a late Rhino fightback. South Africa had experienced international Rugby League for the first time in 28 years. It proved to be a launch pad for the game but the tour made a loss of R85, 000 and had wiped out all of our reserves.

Poor financial management, extravagance and naivete left us in disarray and the board split into two distinct factions. Strauss and his entrepreneurs felt we could recover and that the investment was needed to lift the game.

Alternative factions Behind Lake were horrified and felt resources should be invested in the grassroots, and particularly the townships. They were concerned about ill-disciplined planning.

Board meetings became regular rows and it was heightened with our invite to Sydney Sevens. Naturally we wanted to flex our muscles on the international stage but could we afford it?

In January 1993, nine board members, led by myself, called for Lake's resignation 'out of the blue'. It duly came and with him and two other board members. Dave Southern was to later to link up with the other two to form Mini League. With hindsight, I regret the manner in which I spit the board. Although I feel was coming anyway. Dave Southern, still in league's employ, held on but finally in, June, left. The exchange of letters, threats, abuse and acrimony was unpleasant on both sides. It created wounds that even today are unhealed.

South Africa's international 'minder' by then was Austalias Bob Abbott and he took the side eof the Strauss group. The British RFL had placed SA under the Aussies earlier in 1992 as Great Britain had their own problems in Russia.

The period 1993 and 1994 saw unprecedented growth and success of the game in South Africa, attributable as much to television as to anything else. Thanks mainly to Mike Bardsley, and the Australian Rugby League; we enjoyed a weekly one-hour ARL highlights package. It ran uninterrupted for 18 months and enjoyed a staggering average viewership of 1.2m. It should be remembered that it wasn't only until the election 1994 that the other sports became major TV rivals. For the time being we basked in the sun.

Sydney 1993 was highly successful - we beat the USA and lost narrowly creditably to East's, Papua New Guinea and Fiji but scored some brilliant long-range tries, including a diving effort by Cape Coloured, Jacob Steemag. The try was regularly shown years later, so popular it was.

The ARL was suitably impressed and gave there blessing to a tour later that year by North's negotiated by Struass and me.

By August, the league finances had stabilised and Pepsi Cola came in with a major sponsorship for a youth sevens. Over 1,000 kids attended a one-week festival played in Pretoria and Johannesburg, simultaneously, on five fields (fortunately by now referees' society had been formed!)

The tournament was a great success and given it only included under 16 and under 18 levels, was a world Rugby League record for one festival. The black kids were, initially; physically tentative but grew in confidence. The top private union playing schools from Pretoria particularly adapted very quickly. Bob Abbott had provided a top referee/coach, Ian Parnaby, and he and I coached over 90 referees/teachers (30 black) and ran clinics in the Cape townships for 512 kids.

David Oxley and Bob Ashby had by now been replaced by a rapidly up and coming Maurice Lindsay. He led an impressive GB Board delegation here, including old friend Harry Jepson, Stephen Ball and David Howes. However, our international relationships were somewhat ambiguous. The ARL always encouraged us to be publicly courteous to GB but privately there was little love lost between the two rivals Super powers. To further complicate matters, mini league (formed by our 4 ex board members) was gaining some sympathy with elements in Britain.

The North Sydney Bear's tour of October 1993 was undoughtedly, Rugby League's high point. This wealthy Rolls Royce of a club breezed in and taught us lessons on and off the field. They beat both the Rhinos and Cape Town 42-6, but both were exciting, passionate affairs. Jacey Strauss had wanted the Bears game against North's to be at Ellis Park, Rugby Union's 70,000-seater citadel. Fearing a financial loss and a small crowd, we switched sensibly to a quaint little ground in Randburg, not dissimilar to McClaren Field.

Officially 6,740 people attended, but clearly many more over-ran our beleaguered gate lady, sitting on a plastic seat with plastic bucket. Life was good, live TV, a big crowd and a profit of nearly R60, 000 in the bank.

North's professionals had never played rugby in an electrical storm as we had that night all around us. Coach Peter Louis asked me, the match referee, as I led the teams out what would be my view if the terrible lightning got any closer. I told him "I would run like hell to the stand' and "so would I."

The South African public liked what they saw and it reflected in our 1993/94 season. Nine clubs in Johannesburg, eight in Cape Town, three in Natal and six in Northern Transvaal - Mooi-Nooi (try pronouncing that with a thick Lancashire accent - Mooey-Nooey?) The league now had 4 regional committees. These 4 provinces prepared for the arrival of BARLA in March 1994. The Rhinos sharpened their own preparation with another good Sydney Sevens. The BARLA tour was well run, well attended, had good sponsorship and all five games were highly competitive. The league was, understandably, getting confident now and it took a Transvaal/BARLA game to a new development area - Randfontein - a mining community 50km west of Johannesburg. All reported a satisfaction with nearly 3,000 people.

The 'test' was a 'blood and thunder' affair with the Rhinos never behind and BARLA maybe a little fortunate to grab a 28-28 draw. South Africa enjoyed its first full one minute brawl as four players went to the sin bin! The theft of several BARLA players shirts from the dressingroom didn't seem to deter the young ambassadors as they enjoyed the South African hospitality in a semi dressed manner!

The euphoric multi-racial elections of April 1994 precipitated changes to the country that caused League to rapidly lose ground over the next 18 months and never again reach those heights.

Global sport exploded - now South Africa had legitimate international competition. The sleeping giants of Rugby Union, soccer, cricket, tennis, golf and athletics signed up deal after deal and world sport filled our screens. Former sponsors of township development now diverted all their spare cash to government projects. League was eventually forced off television as other sports with overseas sponsorship came in, such as swimming, basketball and baseball.

Two further complications were to compound matters up to the end of 1995: Firstly, the Super League - ARL civil war and, secondly, the arrival on the scene of Ockie Ooshuizen.

Rugby Union in South Africa was a vicious and arrogant bully in the main. When we heard stories of the eternally pompus Twickenham attitude towards League it could not hold a candle to our struggle.

On countless occasions, provincial presidents would blatantly tell their schools that if they continued flirting with the 'devil's game' their concessions would be withdrawn - like funding, VIP tickets, scholarships, representative honours. Legitimately hired stadiums would be mysteriously cancelled; the Afrikaan press snubbed our stories. Even though we deliberately played a different season to avoid conflict, our open age amateur players were repeatedly threatened. Even large municipalities were threatened if we hired stadiums not even owned by union.

Fortunately, however, a change of political dispensation meant Union could no longer dominate the government, schools, civil service, universities, etc. Rest assured, they are still enormously powerful and, politically, vulnerable. There is a justified suspicion that Union is not serious about uplifting the underprivileged communities. Furthermore, there has been widespread anger over it signing-over all international and provincial televised rugby for ten years to M-net - our private subscriber TV. Hence, the vast majority of South Africans are denied televised rugby (note - there are just one million M-net subscribers, almost totally white in a country of 41 million people). Ironically, union's deal is with Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp - i.e Sanzar.

Club Rugby Union, however, is in deep trouble. Professionalism has pulled most funding to an elite few hundred at Springbok and provincial level. Clubs no longer receive subsidies, many reverting to BARLA type social teams, run by dour, enthusiastic locals. Schools rugby despite racial integration remains very strong. Although it is now easier to hire stadiums and to seek constitutional protection against player bullying, we were recently given a reminder of union's tentacles. A substantial ball deal with an international supplier mysteriously and suddenly collapsed - we subsequently discovered Union's hand in it.

From the euphoria of the 1995 Rugby Union World Cup, the game (Union) has, to a degree, blown its opportunities. It has sacked the liberals, neglected its development, has a poor image crowned it with a controversial TV deal.

The four ex-Rugby League board members who departed some four years ago forming Mini League. As far as I can ascertain, Mini League is a ball handling sport deriving it's rules form League, union and Basketball. It targets under 13's boys and girls, mainly in underprivileged communities and schools. Given that it is patently not Rugby League, we have no contact with the sport and maintain our distance. Various olive branches have come back over the years with too onerous strings.

Ockie Oosthuizen has been hovering on the fringes of League well before his arrival mid 1994. As explained earlier, the game had already begun its decline. Initially, Ockie was to professionally event-manage the October series against Queensland Residents, another tour attributable to Bob Abbott. The tour was professionally promoted and staged but a disastrous 10-hour cloudburst all but wiped it out and Oosthuizen took a substantial loss.

The game itself was hard, dour and a scoreline of 28-0 did no justice to the Rhinos, coached by Paul Matete and assisted by no less than Artie Beetson. Oosthuizen promptly withdrew his financial support for the December tour by Perth Western Reds. It went ahead anyway but was very modestly run, staged and attended. The 'test' match was a mean affair with some very poor discipline on both sides. The writing was on the wall for Rugby League in South Africa as the club season shrank and no TV.

Ockie Oosthuizen was a beacon of hope for a tired board that had run out of money. He was self-made, well known (if controvercial), very ambitious and fearless. The initial signs were good - the ailing Rugby League office was moved from a rented council office in a beautiful nature reserve to his insurance firm. Outside consultants developed a meaty business plan for the launching of a professional league in South Africa. However, Oosthuizen was losing patience with a board of largely amateur club men - he a Springbok, having come form an entrepreneurial life.

The Sydney Sevens in February 1995 were not a happy affair for the Rhinos on and off the field but Oosthuizen did, however, charm the international board with his plans. Sadly, they also brought into the story that club rugby, schools and development was a sham, it wasn't brilliantly run but there was sufficient history. Equally sadly, Bob Abbott who had fought tooth and nail for the board now abandoned them.

Ockie's attitude hardened the moment Super League exploded onto the scene. He was above board about his views, which largely excluded grassroots development, and frantically pursued Super League in with his plans in Leeds and Sydney. But the clubs were not to be shafted easily and they fought back, undermining Oosthuizen's ambitions and fuelling suspicions and global politics that held back the previous international board.

By July, three months before the Centenary World Cup, Ockie Oosthuizen had serious reservations about the likelihood of a deal with Super League. My own position was an unenviable one of mediator - I had some technical skills and was probably not trusted by either side'.

Tony Fisher arrived to prepare the Rhinos for the World Cup and he and Ootsthuizen - both abrasive- quickly fell out. The Rhinos, a collection of largely club players, trained daily for 15 weeks and confidently beat BARLA in two tests. Oosthuizen was footing the bill and a last ditch visit by Roy Waudby did not engender Ockie or the British Rugby League to either.

The Halifax World Cup saw a gallant but totally out-classed Rhinos hammered in their three games. Fiji was just too physical and the Aussies were, as ever, awesome. The Rhinos did regain some pride by holding England at Headingley and received a heart-warming ovation from an appreciative crowd. It was a desperately unhappy trip for all concerned - a by now isolated Ockie had his father and his lawyer as his tour management.

The court case against Super League and Ockie's Fall out with the British Rugby League (Maurice Lindsay) ended his involvement -bitter, frustrated no dought and a few thousand rands worse off. The 1995/96-club season had seen further contraction and internal division, January 1996 - Ockie and I had our last lunch together - very amicable and put the dream back in its box. We did not get an invite to either the Sydney Sevens or the Fiji Nines and our membership of the international board was suspended. South African Rugby League was on the very precipice and looking down a big hole, International Rugby League was itself distracted as the civil war took hold.

The South African Rugby League, climbed out of intensive care, left the bombed out ruin by Jan '96. Contact resumed with Maurice Lindsay, forever the internationalist, was cautiously friendly. Our invite to the student world cup supported by Maurice, followed, but for the initial reaction, we might not have come through.

The board regrouped, held a fully democratic AGM and set about rebuilding with a passion lacking since 1993. We planned to use the student world cup as a vehicle for also resurrecting our clubs. Boosted by some financial assistance from the RFL and with our efforts, 78 initial students were assembled in Feb and reduced to 24 by August. Fund raising was sufficiently successful for us to send a management of seven people and our squad was superbly kited out.

On the field a very strong Rhino side got stronger as the tour went on. Scraping into the bowl semi we hammered Scotland at York and took on England at Keithley. It was a superb game of Rugby League and we held on for a 22-20 win, and had the very gracious support of the Keithley public. I think several board members cried when the joint anthems were played, myself included. It somehow made years of toil and sacrifice allied to the tremendous surge of democracy focused on that moment of wonderful nationalism. And South Africa had become used to winning under pressure.

Better news was to follow as, with Maurice Lindsay's support, we were awarded the Student World Cup for 1998. Admittedly it did follow some intense lobbying (David Oxley still bears the choke marks!) The euphoria of the Super League court case victor and an urgent invite to Auckland to the international board meeting was the icing on the cake. Despite a 30-hour journey and 3 hours sleep in two days, my presentation to the board must have been plausible. "South Africa were unanimously welcomed to the board" I heard Maurice Lindsay announce to the worlds media. The camaraderie, energy and possessiveness of the new board and their inquisitive reaction towards South Africa have since fired me up with tremendous determination and enthusiasm.

Super League (Aus) had begun signing young South Africans and taking them on scholarships to their clubs (largely Peter Moore's efforts.) As a result, our nines side at Townsville was confident and competent under the legendary ex Springbok captain Tiaan Strauss. A young and inexperienced, but fit, side beat France, Tonga, Japan and the Cook Islands and were not disgraced by GB and Fiji. The Australian Press labelled us 'the surprise package' of the tournament and dramatically improved. Not quite test rugby but, nethertheless, encouraging.

So where are South Africa now and where can we realistically go from here? We have a small office at the Herman Immelman Stadium in Germiston, east Johannesburg. It is a well-equipped, modern athletics stadium with several fields and excellent facilities. We have use of a similar stadium in Pretoria- the Pilditch. Several of our club sides play out of quality stadiums. For the first time in years we have several applications for new clubs. This time, however, we are carefully applying our minimal criteria.

Bill Banuley, Chairman of Germiston and board member, has pioneered the "Athlone" model. Our efforts in the black townships over the years have largely failed - those communities still have little infrastructure and support. Schools, however, offer parents, teachers and you still get at the township kids.

Athlone is an established black league playing school, coached by young players from Bill's club. They now regularly play and beat white teams without any over protective refereeing or a string of helpful penalties.

Glenn Johnson has stood by league for 5 years and has invested substantial money in kit, coaches, trips, etc. South African unique replica merchandise has been developed, registered, trade marked, manufactured and retailed around the world. It is currently selling well through Nuttals in England and the league is now deriving royalties.

Glenn is also finalising his prospectus for the privatisation of the league and clubs - i.e. the offering of shares to South African and overseas investors. Interested parties have already mat in Australia. The clubs recently unanimously approved the deal, which includes loyalty bonuses to faithful board members, coaches' etc.

Televised Super League will return soon to South Africa on a one-hour Saturday slot on S.A.B.C directly opposing Rugby Union on cable. S.A.B.C. projects initial 1.2million viewers on their popular 'Mabaleng' sports programme.

The board's objectives for the next three years are believed to be attainable:

1. The national team - The Rhinos - To substantially improve, particularly with Graeme Lowe's appointment as technical director. For substantial read sixth at the 1998 world cup (only this has been cancelled)

2. The clubs to be semi-professional within 12 months and professional by mid 1999.

3. The league to have a full-time administrative, development schools network within two years.

4. To be self-funded through merchandise royalties, privatisation and TV sponsorship within two years.

For the first time in 8 years, South African League has stability; it has a plan and knows what it wants.


This article was taken from Open Rugby Magazine