'We have got a right to be there'
INTERVIEW: These days, the phone of Harold Verster, the Free State Cheetahs Managing Director, doesn’t stop trilling between five in the morning and eight at night.
The South African administrator was due to retire this week, shifting his profound love of Free State rugby from the boardroom to the stands. Instead, Verster is ruminating over legal documents, scrutinising figures and briefing his players and staff about a grave predicament.
The Cheetahs have effectively been jettisoned from the Pro14. The South African Rugby Union wants its four heavyweight franchises – the Bulls, Stormers, Lions and Sharks – to be the flag-bearers in the northern hemisphere, settled by a vote at a special general meeting on Tuesday.
The upshot is devastating for the Cheetahs, desperately cruel to the franchise that forged the path between South Africa and the European game since 2017. The Cheetahs, remember, were booted out of Super Rugby three years ago, deemed surplus to requirements as that competition became bloated and its relevance waned.
They leaked players and coaches but have comfortably held their own in the Pro14. In effect, they have blazed a trail north for the bigger, more glamorous South African teams, only to be tossed aside again.
“Like in Super Rugby, we are on the back foot. We need to go through all the documentation to try to prove our case. It is very unfair,” Verster told RugbyPass. “We opened negotiations with the Pro14 (then Pro12) in 2017 and it was quite a difficult road to travel, to find your feet, contract players.
“We lost a lot of players who wanted to play Super Rugby. We have lost coach Franco Smith to Italy, Rory Duncan to Worcester, Daan Human to the Boks, Dave Williams to the Sharks, and even our doctor to Dubai. We regrouped, we have got brilliant coaches, doctor, a brilliant team, one of the best teams in a long time. Suddenly this thing hits you like a lightning bolt.
“When we joined the Pro14, SARU said they appreciated our solution to being left out of Super Rugby, they called it an ‘elegant settlement’ and said in their report that it would be wonderful for South African rugby. Now they are throwing us out of the bus. It is so unfair. It is really, really frustrating. We are very unhappy with our situation.”
#⃣BREAKING NEWS❗️ The @CheetahsRugby have ‘reserved their rights’ after being booted from the @PRO14Official by #SARugby
💢The implications of the business model have to be assessed
💢The meeting rejected the first option
— rugby365.com (@rugby365com) September 29, 2020
At Tuesday’s meeting, Verster says the Cheetahs proposed the standings in the forthcoming Currie Cup be used to determine which four teams joined the Pro14, but arguments and counter-claims only ended in an impasse.
The Cheetahs have been granted ‘fifth-franchise’ status, meaning they will be eligible to participate in international tournaments, if not remain in the one where they are already established.
One idea being mooted is a Super 8 competition featuring two teams apiece from New Zealand and Australia, as well as the Cheetahs, and one representative each from Argentina, Japan and the Pacific Islands. If no amicable solution can be found, Verster says the Cheetahs will have little choice but to engage SARU through the courts.
“It depends on what content is in the Super 8 for broadcasters and sponsors and we are currently investigating that, and then we might accept it. If the content is too low and we don’t get enough from it, we have got no option but to look at alternatives,” he said.
“SARU has a contract with Pro14. We are not sure exactly what is in the contract, but we have agreements between us and SARU to show that we should be included until the 2022/2023 season. We have enough back-up – not fixed contracts, but agreements that could be seen to be contracts.
“Our senior counsel has looked at it and we feel very comfortable that we have got a good legal case. We do not want to enter into legal battles with SARU. The last option would be legal, but if that’s the last thing to stand on, every union will obviously look at it.”
All of this will be pondered at a board meeting on Friday where Verster hopes the franchise will begin to piece together their next course of action. The stakes for Free State rugby here are monumental. The cost of facilities, a large squad and staff, and operational outgoings could be ruinous.
— rugby365.com (@rugby365com) September 30, 2020
“If we lose out on the Super 8 and the financial model, we face serious issues, almost too serious to contemplate,” said Verster. “We sit in a stadium here that can accommodate 40 000 people – this thing costs us ZAR9-10million a year (£470,000). The other smaller entities in smaller stadiums cost them 1.5m or so (£70,000). If we are pulled to that level with them, we are actually in a worse position than them.
“Compare us then to the big four, we can’t sustain this stadium, we can’t sustain our academy, our medical facilities, that puts us in a spot and it’s absolutely unreasonable to do it overnight.”
Verster reels off a long list of international coaches who learned their rugby in the Free State, from Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber to Franco Smith and Neil Powell. He talks about the people’s fervour for the game and how the stadium is rammed full when the Springboks come to town.
“They say we are too small, that we are in the middle of South Africa – the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” he added. “We have a fantastic team of people and we fight like a team. We have got to pull this thing through and we will. I’m very confident we will find something.
“First-prize is to get us back into the Pro14. We have got a right to be there. They made a mistake to get us out. Why are the other four so well positioned to take the place that we rightfully deserve? If it wasn’t for Covid-19, we would be there now.
“If we are in the Pro14, we should stay there. People like us up north, the Pro14 people really want us there, but it’s not their decision. Treat us fairly, we deserve it. We don’t want to fight, we want to solve this problem as we did with Super Rugby, but please, be fair to us.”
By Jamie Lyall, @RugbyPass