There are many reasons why I will keep a very close eye on the Lions this year, and their on-field results won’t be one of them.
Of course positive results in the Super 15 will mean a lot to the union, their fans and South African rugby in general because let’s be honest, it cannot get any worse than last year where they could not buy a win. But on-field results will mean little in the bigger scheme of things and the route rugby as a professional sport will take in South Africa in years to come.
There is a lot I can say and have said in the past about Robert Gumede. To be honest, supporters do not like politics in rugby or political issues influencing rugby, and for most, the political association Gumede brings to the party might just be a little too close for comfort.
It was for me initially, but over the last couple of weeks I have been slowly converted from being a pessimist to becoming quietly optimistic about what is happening at the union.
For one, Gumede is certainly making the right noises. Noises I certainly like to hear about turning a struggling union into a professionally run organisation.
Noises that suggest that SA Rugby and other associations have in the past merely paid lip-services to transforming the game and how he intends to set this right focussing on development (at schools specifically) but only support merit selections at higher levels.
Noises that suggest that the business aspect of rugby has to be run by business people, and the rugby side by rugby people.
Noises that suggest rugby has to change its approach and become a family affair, event or day out again.
And most importantly, noises that suggest that decisions he will make in his capacity as investor and part-owner in the union will be done without emotion, and only what he and the board believes is best for the game and the union as a business.
Gumede is certainly ambitious if not somewhat fearless, in a recent interview with SA Rugby magazine he mentioned players he still wants to bring to the union include Frans Steyn, Thierry Dusautoir (France), Ma’a Nonu and Richard Kahui.
He also seemingly has no problem challenging institutionalised or entrenched norms in rugby either, with his team’s sponsor a direct competitor to the main competition sponsor in Super rugby.
All of a sudden, the Lions PR machine is working overtime, players are out and about meeting with fans, media releases through traditional and social media networks are sending out positive vibes about everything that is going on at the union to such an extent that you cannot help get caught up in the hype even if you are not a supporter!
So yes, there is a lot of things that will make one apprehensive about Gumede and his association with one of the oldest rugby unions in South Africa, but I for one, am becoming increasingly excited about the future of the Lions.
It remains to be seen how he and the union will handle pressure when results on the field does not go their way, and if he will stick to his promise of not getting personally involved with the ‘rugby matters’ of the union, but to deny that Gumede is possibly the best thing to happen to this union in a decade of mediocrity, would be short-sighted.