Once the dust has settled on the long-awaited EP Rugby Union elections next month, the new president will start plotting a course for the troubled and cash-strapped union.
The new leader will be hoping that a changing of the guard ushers in new sponsors eager to get on board in the post-Cheeky Watson era.
Watson handed in his resignation this week after it was announced that EP Rugby would be holding elections next month after which power would be handed back to local hands.
Finding a major sponsor has always been a problem for EP Rugby, though SA Rugby official Monde Tabata is confident that could change with a new constitution.
“The cleaned-up EP constitution will attract good candidates. The constitution also talks to the anxieties of potential sponsors,” Tabata said.
“Work is being done on sponsorship and, at an appropriate time, we will release information.” Outgoing Watson said he could not put his finger on why EP Rugby had been unable to land a major sponsor.
“I have grown up in this region and played for the Gazelles, Craven Week for four years, Spring Rose, and for EP against the All Blacks. “But, for whatever reason, business has never been committed to EP Rugby.”
Watson, an advocate of overseas investment to boost SA rugby, said he was disappointed that a sponsorship deal between US financier Douglas Schoninger and the Kings failed to get off the ground earlier this year. As Watson prepared to vacate his office after eight years in the hot seat, he spoke about rebranding and the possibility of the Kings changing their name.
Watson, even though he was not involved in the US deal, followed the negotiations closely. Schoninger had top-level meetings in Cape Town earlier this year with the liquidators of the EP Rugby Union (EPRU) and some members of the SA Rugby Union’s Exco executive committee about buying a 74% stake in the troubled union. Last year, Schoninger met Alexander in London, when talk of his interest in buying a stake in EP Rugby surfaced.
Although SA Rugby and the architect of the “American Alliance”, Tony McKeever, threw a veil of secrecy over the meetings with the liquidator, a deal was not finalised before Schoninger flew home.
“I think it would always be good to bring in a foreign investor because of the exchange rates,” Watson said.
“So the cost to the foreign investor is not a major cost. It would always be an asset to get a foreign investor involved and strengthen your ties with overseas nations.
“When I looked at the US investor development, I was very optimistic and then disappointed when it did not come through. “Ever since I got involved in EP Rugby, my position has always been that the sooner franchises privatise, the better.
“Private investors can come in and have control like in soccer.” “The Lions also battled when they were out of SR and we just never recovered from the 2013 Super Rugby season.”
Watson also had some advice for the Southern Kings after they lost their opening Super Rugby match against the Jaguares last Saturday.
“It is a difficult time for the Kings,”Watson said. “I think the important thing is that each player needs to realise that his job and reputation is on the line and the better he performs on the field, the more valuable he is as a player.
“First thing he must do when he wakes up in the morning, is to look in the mirror and realise that one has to play with pride – and after the game, be able to say ‘I gave it my all’.” “It is important that they first play for themselves and then move to the commitment of playing for the team. Then all falls into place.”
Watson said it would be unfair to put pressure on the players regarding claims that the Kings could be booted out of Super Rugby if they are the worst-performing Super Rugby franchise. “The players do not deserve the pressure of the possibility of Super Rugby being cut,”Watson said. “Various formulas for the future success of Super Rugby have 18, 16 and even 12 sides competing in the league.
There are various debates and arguments from all sides.
“That’s not my area of expertise, so I will leave that up to the people who know better. But I would not like to put that pressure on the players.” Many feel that the Kings brand has been tarnished by infighting and the cash crisis and that the team should change their name. At one stage it was mooted by Mc- Keever that the name should change to the Saints.
“I think that a name change would have to be left up to the marketing people,” Watson said. “I think that if a strong equity partner came in, that might be something they would like to do. “Because then the franchise would be run as a business and they will be different to the union. So that could be a possibility that could work.
“But, if you have the right person and you have a winning team, it does not matter what the name is – the stadium will be full.” Asked about support from SA Rugby during his time in office, Watson said: “It has always been a dogfight to get EP recognised in the Super Rugby competition. “I think more should have been done to ensure us a three-year tenure in Super Rugby and not a one-year tenure.”
Watson said it had often been lonely sitting in the EP Rugby hot seat.
“I think it was a reasonably lonely journey even during the times of it going well. “2013 was a good year – not because we broke records, but because I had an absolute pillar in my director of rugby Alan Solomons when we played Super Rugby. “We had a wonderful relationship, so that was a tremendous help. But is has been lonely in the good and the bad times.”
What does life after rugby look like for Watson?
“I have always been in consultancy business and I will just continue with that. “I am severing my ties with rugby completely and at the moment I am trying to improve my golf game. “I do not have a handicap yet and am just trying to get the ball off the turf.”
His final plea before quitting was for rugby to find unity and stability.
“The important thing with elections coming up is that there is unity and compromise among candidates,” Watson said. “It is vitally important that there is unity and the negativity around EP Rugby needs to stop. “People must be unified behind the new president to ensure that there is top-flight rugby here for years to come.’
“Whoever decides to throw their hat into the ring, it is important that they negotiate with each other so they can reach compromises for certain positions in order for them to have the backing of the entire province, ”Watson said.