Part two of Sport 24′s chief writer Rob Houwing’s in-depth interview with WP Rugby managing director Rob Wagner
Click here for Part One of the interview with Rob Wagner.
Sport24: Are the Sharks or Bulls franchises actually wealthier than you are now?
Wagner: I wouldn’t say significantly more wealthy, but they do have extra commercial opportunities. Their stadia have multi-purpose rights; we don’t. They are able to generate more income from the commercialisation of their stadia, hosting far more events. For example Robbie Williams was a great money-spinner for the other venues: we were not allowed to stage that concert. They also manage to generate a very tidy amount of money through soccer. I speak under correction but I think Loftus makes about R3m to R4m on soccer. Obviously we’ve had Ajax Cape Town at Newlands before but they just don’t generate the big followings of the other centres. But the big unions are generally on a par; our retainers to our professional players are more or less the same. Where we score is on crowds, season tickets and suites.
Sport24: But across the railway line, Sahara Park Newlands cricket ground seems to be increasingly multi-purpose …
Wagner: It’s a technical issue. It comes down to being able to put people on the field itself, and having the correct access and exit points from your field. If something happens on the grass itself, you have got to be able to evacuate people quickly in terms of disaster management stipulations and we simply can’t. The cricket ground has much bigger exit possibilities; north, south, over the grass banks and so on. All the major entertainers require big field areas for gold and platinum circles so again we can’t provide those. We are also slap-bang in the middle of a residential area. And if you look at the cricket ground they haven’t been staging hard-rockers like Guns n’ Roses … the nature of the concerts has been more Lionel Ritchie or Elton John, or religious festivals. So we have to be clever and make up in other ways for the lack of utilisation of our stadium. It’s tough, a huge constraint for us, using a 48 000-capacity stadium only 20 times a year.
Sport24: I think a lot of supporters would still contend that the engine room is the Achilles Heel of Stormers/WP rugby; that the pack is still shy of a couple of true heavyweights … why, for instance, was a pretty big, scrummaging hooker like Tiaan Liebenberg allowed to leave?
Wagner: I can’t really comment on the technical aspects of Rassie’s game-plan going into the future. He will be able to expand on that. We are extremely fortunate he’s with us; he’s a great, great rugby visionary. But in terms of Tiaan and Ross Skeate, they are great examples of just not being able to compete financially with the European market, and especially the French market. Both players were offered contracts, and good ones at that; both we ideally wanted to keep. I mean, look at how New Zealand have suffered through the exodus of players, and it’s not like it’s bottomed out for them, either. It’s an ongoing issue. And it’s something, I think, that will take the IRB closer to seriously addressing the creation of a global season, so you don’t have this mass movement of players.
Sport24: Can you assure the Newlands public that you are ambitious, nevertheless, in squad strengthening/recruitment terms?
Wagner: Rassie is recruiting, yes, and recruiting where he feels are the areas the team needs bolstering. Again, he’ll have to motivate on that front. First week of November we will hopefully have completed our contracting process for the Super 14.
Sport24: Sireli Naqelevuki was a creative signing back in 2006. Was the idea primarily to get a big physical specimen — a bit of a Lomu, maybe – into the backline?
Wagner: Having a big guy like that creates an iconic status in itself. The other thing is that you hear people saying he’s not involved in play, he doesn’t seem to be moving quickly … we can give you stats of who carries the ball the furthest and they will tell you (otherwise). The yardage he makes, and importantly with a lot of people hanging onto him, is phenomenal. Also, in the Super 14 you are up against some really big backline players in the New Zealand teams, in particular: Sireli is just one of a number of players of that size! So from that point of view he is vital and he does bring that bit of difference to your team.
Sport24: What about the “Dad’s Army” perception some wags have about recent Rassie Erasmus acquisitions like AJ Venter and Willem de Waal, and the desire to persevere with Monty for Super 14 2009?
Wagner: OK, let me take a guy like Willem de Waal. You contract a squad, and I think the Sharks and Crusaders have both demonstrated that you sometimes field different horses for different courses. The Western Cape, let’s not forget, is a winter rainfall area – you don’t need me to tell you that after the one we’ve just had. Think that first Currie Cup game in Durban; rained like hell. De Waal kicked everything over. Bulls at Newlands? Rained like hell; he kicked everything over. Cheetahs at Newlands: same story. There will be games where you need to keep on kicking for the corners, keep your team going forward, and bang over your penalties when they come. Then look at what Percy offers you in that department, not to even mention his experience and the way it rubs off around him. As for AJ, Rassie brought him in specifically as a back-up No 4 lock – he was sometimes forced back into loose forward activity (in the Currie Cup) only because of injuries we had in that area. Think Wylie Human for back-up and pure experience … I challenge anyone to say he’s ever let us down. So these are players contracted for specific reasons, and not just for on-field stuff on match day. Ask our young pack in those first nine Currie Cup games, about the aura and mentoring influence of AJ behind the scenes. The Kosters and Kritzingers will tell you what they learn just over a lunch with AJ Venter. Plus these older guys are great to have on tour.
Sport24: Although Newlands is bypassed for the Tests, are you confident the ground will be filled for both British Lions tour matches next year, against Western Province and even the Emerging Boks?
Wagner: The funny thing about the Emerging Bok game, Rob, is that it is shaping as the most popular game … particularly from the overseas market, because it is on the Tuesday before the Pretoria (second) Test. Thus it is being sold as a tourist package taking in the sights of Cape Town plus the game reserves and so on up north. So it’s suddenly a massively attractive midweek game. I don’t know exact numbers but even for that one I’d expect at least 10 000 Lions fans. Of course we’re disappointed not to have a Test but the reality of the matter is that Lions tours now are far more “commercial entities” than they were in the past: with our fully subscribed suites and so on, we simply could not provide the volume of corporate hospitality requirements agreed between the Lions company and SA Rugby. So that is why I fought tooth and nail for a Tri-Nations Test here next year (against Australia) – we would normally get one every second year. Let’s not forget Province against Lions a week out from the first Test will be a wonderful thing. Our guys are already licking their (lips) for that one; they are so keen to actually get a chance to play a proper “tour” fixture, just like would have happened in the past with more extended All Blacks visits, for instance. That just doesn’t happen nowadays. I’m hugely excited about seeing the blue-and-white jersey go into battle with that famous red one! I can tell you, too, that Emerging Boks will be a true Emerging Boks, and thus a fascinating exercise in itself.Tweet