HARARE – Having requested a one-on-one interview with Zimbabwe Rugby Union president John Falkenburg to address a wide range of issues affecting the game, I was slightly taken aback when photographer Annie Mpalume and I arrived for the appointment to see ZRU’s whole top brass waiting for us in the well-manicured garden of the union’s new, posh offices in Alexandra Park.
“There are no one-on-ones in rugby, we insist on total transparency,” remarked Falkenburg as he led us into the spacious boardroom alongside his vice-president Colleen De Jonge, general manager Sifiso Made and marketing consultant David Crouch.
With rugby once again finding itself in familiar turmoil – engulfed with shoddy preparations, paltry incentives, allegations of player mistreatment and victimisation, selection issues amongst other things – it was quite clear from the onset Falkenburg knew beforehand that he faced tough questions.
He had clearly well-armed himself for the challenge, but I was also ready for the “test”, and equipped with a list of questions begging for answers, I fired away.
Falkenburg took turns to answers the questions with Colleen, a charming middle-aged blonde with an unmistakable passion and knowledge of the game, the second woman to hold such a position in Zimbabwean rugby.
I started by asking Falkenburg to state his achievements since he was elected into office to replace Themba Sibanda a year and half ago.
“Financial stability, accountability,” he replied sharply.
“We have had to clear debts from previous periods. We have strengthened structures at schools and club level. We have total accountability and good governance.”
De Jonge, whose son Raymond earned two Sables caps at fullback last year, said the current ZRU leadership place emphasis on sound administrative skills.
“As far as corporate governance is concerned, we are guided by IRB structures,” De Jonge said. “There are key performance indicators. We send a report every three months to IRB. They have always complimented us and are happy with our rugby.”
Most of the debate concerning the game has centred around the national Fifteens team, the Sables, pretty much the norm over the years.
The Sables, defending champions of Africa, were dealt a big blow to their title defence preparations after their trip to South Africa for two first-class matches against Valke and Pumas were cancelled due to financial constraints.
Belgium also called off their tour of the country for a one-off test this month, meaning Zimbabwe will now go to Madagascar for this year’s Africa Cup in July lacking match experience.
And with Kenya, a serious threat at the Madagascar tournament, having spent 10 days on an elite training camp with Western Province in Cape Town in addition to their annual two-legged Elgon Cup clash with Uganda, ZRU has come in for heavy criticism over their failure to prepare the Sables adequately, to which Falkenburg retorted:
“Does the community want us to incur debuts we cannot pay? Do they really want the sport to prosper? How do we spend money we don’t have? Where is that gonna put us at the end of the day? I’m not prepared to run up a debt without paying back. I’m not gonna have property attached.
“Belgium also didn’t come here for financial reasons. Maybe the community need to raise eyebrows as well.
“It all revolves around finances. The Kenyans are supported by a lot of money. I was at a meeting in Kenya and they received $2 million for preparations. The only money we have is the IRB grant.”
De Jonge added that despite the trip cancellation, preparations were well on course.
“Preparations are going on well. The guys are training hard. We have a plan to train the best possible way. Coaching is one small aspect. IRB will send us a specialist coach. He will arrive 10 days before the camp. He will travel to Madagascar as well. It will be an intensive camp. There are negotiations to bring in a specialist forwards coach from France.
“Besides, Sevens is part and parcel of our rugby system and a lot of these players have been active in the last six months.”
Rugby has struggled over the years to attract meaningful sponsorship, but De Jonge believes the leadership methods of the current administration will eventually lure corporate partners.
“We believe we can add value to corporate sponsors due to the type of management we have. The talent we have and the potential,” she said.
The role and responsibility of the ZRU has also been put under scrutiny, with the union often accused of being a toothless organisation, watching proceedings from a distance without doing much to raise funds for the national team and the game in general.
Falkenburg says that is not the role of the union.
“Each section has a committee, from schools, Sevens, women and Fifteens,” he said.
“Their sole responsibility is to go and get funding. The ZRU’s role is development and guidance. We have just engaged a professional marketing man, who is sitting across the table, Mr David Crouch. Bear in mind the sole responsibility of the union is administering he game. (However) All the marketing will be done through the union. There is need to have a holistic approach.
“All budgets from the committees have to be approved by the union and the chairmen of those committees are all executives of the ZRU.”
Interjects Crouch, saying: “Famous Grouse will become the team sponsor of the Sevens team after the World Cup.”
Fine and fair, but the other subject of debate in the fraternity is the tendency to divert more energy on Sevens at the expense of the flagship game, and I put that across to Falkenburg.
“Not at all,” answered Falkenburg, revealing: “There is a commitment from a private company of over $100 000 for the remainder of this year. We have received some of it already.
“But look at Sevens. The committee has gone and looked for sponsorship. The companies have not come and say ‘rugby, here’s money’. If you function like deadwood, you are not gonna get money.”
Another burning issue the ZRU has had to contend with is the upsurge in disgruntled players taking to social networking websites to pour their frustration over what they claim to be ill-treatment by team management, victimisation for raising issues of concern and non-payment of dues.
“There is a disciplinary code of conduct and means of issuing complaints that must be followed. There are structures to address that,” Falkenburg said.
“There are player representatives to address that. We have received no official complaint over these issues. We have no problem with social networks. But if the comments are slanderous and personal, action has to be taken.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but we expect certain conduct, especially from a representative of the national team.”
The former Old Hararians coach, in his second year as ZRU supremo, said the union faced serious challenges in financially incentivising the players.
“If you play for Namibia, the only time you get an allowance is at the World Cup. Of late they haven’t even got paid what’s due to them. We are an amateur union, when we become professional you will see things improving.
Falkenburg added that qualification for the 2015 World Cup will unlock opportunities for the game in terms of money.
“That’s the aim. We know the task ahead of us. If we qualify we need as budget of $5 million,” he said.
De Jonge echoed his sentiments, saying:
“ZRU will do everything in its power to make sure the team qualifies. We will use every resources we possibly can; human recourses, technical ability. And we have the support of the IRB and Car (Confederation of African Rugby). People are supportive of Zim rugby, but you have to appreciate we operate in tough economic conditions.”
Home games are a proven way of popularising the sport and generating revenue, but that was also dealt a blow by the abandonment, due to Zimbabwe’s financial situation, of the three-team Victoria Cup, which involved the Sables, Kenya and Uganda.
There have been initiatives in the past to increase the number of home tests through the creation of a continental championship or entry into a competitive league in South Africa.
“We support the initiative totally. Belgium pulled out. That was going to be the start. There are long term plans in place,” Falkenburg said.
“Basically the idea is to have a Six Nations in Africa, something like the Victoria Cup, but only the strongest teams in Africa.
“But it all comes down to finance. There is social responsibility to improve rugby in Africa as well, it’s not just for ourselves.”
Commenting on the selection debate torched by Sables captain Costa Dinha on a Facebook thread, Falkenburg said the union adhere to the laws of the country guiding national representative teams.
“We follow SRC (Sports and Recreation Commission) guidelines. That’s the law of the land, if the law dictates that, we must follow it.”
General Manager Made said on the matter: “The new constitution allows for dual citizenship, but it has to enacted by the SRC.”