By Thobile Hans   | Thobile

Before I left South Africa for the fellowship in March, I traveled to KwaZulu-Natal, a province that had been gripped by drought for more than a year. Things weren’t getting better. I had to be there.

I filed two in-depth articles I spent weeks writing, away from the air-conditioned newsroom in Johannesburg.

Prior to the drought assignment, another story closer to my heart beckoned in my home province, Eastern Cape. It wasn’t about a life threatening disaster but a problematic sport. My story focused on the EP Kings rugby franchise, which was in a political turmoil over its president. In general, rugby in my country is a racially dividing sport. In May, the minister of sports, Fikile Mbalula, banned the Springboks (the predominantly white national team) from hosting any tournaments sanctioned by the International Rugby Board until the team is racially transformed. Sadly, there has been always political interference in the sport.

You can forget about the 2009 movie Invictus, which portrayed Nelson Mandela as the champion of the so called “rainbow nation” who presented the Rugby World Cup to the captain of the Springboks team, Francois Pienaar, in 1995. It was one year after the first democratic elections; we hosted the Rugby World Cup that we won. I reckon we could have won many world cups than anyone, but the Springboks were internationally isolated between 1960 and 1994. The movie starring Americans Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman was a misrepresentation of our country in so many ways, but this not time to rant about that.

A fortnight ago I had a privilege of meeting a New York businessman Doug Schoninger, who launched a rugby franchise called PRO Rugby in April with five teams. I wasn’t aware a 15-men version of rugby existed in the U.S. until a fellow rugby scribe in South Africa pointed it out to me. He wrote in an email that there’s a “New York maverick called Doug Schoninger who thinks Americans can play rugby”.

I was aware of the U.S. rugby sevens national team because they play in my country every summer. I know them so well because they have been one of the journeymen teams; good contenders but not lucky enough to win a title.

Rugby was the fasted growing team sport in America from 2008 and 2013, according to U.S. Rugby. In 2014, the All Blacks and USA Eagles played in Chicago in a sold-out Soldier Field, a stadium with a 61,500-seat capacity.

Schoninger,  who also owns Stadium Capital Financing Group,  put his money into the traditional 15-men-team version comprised clubs from Sacramento, San Francisco, San Diego, Denver and Ohio.  One or two Canadian sides are on the cards for the 2017 season.

Schoninger told me rugby wasn’t something he initially wanted to invest in. He failed in his efforts to buy a baseball team in 2014 and a friend with rugby connections directed him to the sport. It was never about the sport; it was about the business.  As you may agree, passion for something leads to growth. That has happened with Schoninger, too.

“It is about professionalism — professional rugby player, professional league and professional person,” he said. “In America rugby is a good vehicle to give tools to kids and young adults to go on the next phase in life. If you’re really good at it, you can make money. But even if you are not, it gives you that tool. Rugby is the perfect sport for respectful and cooperative people. It’s thinking on the fly. That’s the reason why Penn Mutual Life Insurance is sponsoring rugby; it’s because they think rugby players make good professionals.”  

So far the league has 15 foreign players and coaches, which Schoninger said bolsters the teams as they come from strong rugby nations. When my journalist friend emailed me he was also concerned that if this league survives its infancy stage, it will be another potential threat to South African rugby. Presently there’s hardly a professional team in France, England or Japan without a South African.

It’s a no brainer more South African youth will be lured by better remuneration and come to play in America. If that means sacrificing a call up to the Springboks, the strong dollar is better than the weak Rand. Economists have been warning us of soon plunging into junk status.

Pedrie Wannenburg, who won 20 caps with the Springboks, is one of the league’s foreigners. He earns $90 000 per year at Denver. He’s a trailblazer for many South Africans who are willing to leave our politicized sport for a good dollar.

At this point I envy U.S. Rugby. It’s no issue the USA Eagles are the whipping boys of Australia, New Zealand and England, but I like the fact that they are immune from racial politics.

With all that being said, this meme best sums up our collective passion for the sport:

“Hey guys. This is an urgent shout-out. A friend of mine in Cape Town has a ticket for the Springboks vs Ireland match at Newlands on June 11. When he bought the ticket he didn’t realize the match is on the same day as his wedding, and he is urgently looking for someone to go in his place. The church is in Swellendam, the bride’s name is Jennifer, and everything is already paid for. All you have to do is turn up and say, ‘I do’.”