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Man who helped unite South Africa through rugby is now trying to work his magic with Saracens

It is just about possible to think of the 1995 Rugby World Cup as just another sporting event.

Edward Griffiths: chief executive of Saracens
Edward Griffiths: chief executive of Saracens

You could focus on Jonah Lomu, the All Blacks wing who announced himself as a global phenomenon with his thunderous, unstoppable running. Or Rob Andrew, levering England into the semi-finals, with the sublime, 45-metre dropped goal that dumped the holders Australia out of the tournament. Or even, just to be parochial, taking a lap of honour at Pretoria's Loftus Versfeld ground as he drew down the curtain on his illustrious career.

Yes, it's that easy to miss the point. Because what actually happened in South Africa during those few May and June weeks more than 17 years ago was an event that reverberated, and reverberates still, far beyond sport. It was a nation-changing, nation-building event, inconceivable just a few years earlier, that dynamited distrust between races as the country came together for the first time.

Amabokoboko! Ran the headline in The Sowetan, the newspaper of the sprawling, notorious, red-dirt township a few miles south of Johannesburg, on the tournament's first day. It was a play on 'Amabhagabhaga', a Zulu nickname for the Orlando Pirates football team, and it was a declaration of support for the South Africa team from a black community who would have cheered the opposition – if they took any interest at all – in years past.

A few weeks later, amid tumultuous scenes, President Nelson Mandela emerged from the tunnel at Ellis Park wearing the Springbok No.6 jersey. It was a moment of great theatre, the oppressed in the clothes of his oppressor, and of staggering symbolism. If Mandela, a prisoner for 27 years of the state he now led, could forgive, then anyone could.

One team, one country. The phrase was on everyone's lips that year, but it had been conceived by Edward Griffiths, the 32-year-old chief executive of the South African Rugby Union (SARFU) who had been appointed to the post only a few months earlier. A former journalist, he knew that a successful team and a successful tournament hinged on unity. One of the first things he did was ensure that all members of the team could sing Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, the Xhosa anthem, in its entirety, and not just the English or Afrikaans verses.

Winning the World Cup and changing the nation was one thing. Eradicating the petty backbiting and infighting within the febrile world of South African rugby politics was never going to be so easy. The following February, Griffiths was sacked by Louis Luyt, the all-powerful SARFU president, who was widely believed to resent the attention, and the credit for success, that chief executive was receiving.

Griffiths passed the next few years writing books, working in broadcasting and involving himself in South African Olympic and football World Cup bids. Then, three years ago, he was appointed chief executive of Saracens after a consortium of South African businessmen took a stake in the club. Around the same time, a number of prominent South African players were signed, leading to accusations from longstanding fans that the character of the club was being eroded.

What character, others might have asked. In an elite English environment dominated by town and city institutions such as Bath, Leicester, Gloucester and Northampton, Saracens have long struggled to project an identity beyond sort-of-north-London. When Griffiths arrived, he realised that aggressive and innovative marketing techniques were required. Hence such wheezes as his offer earlier this week to play a 'home' tie against Edinburgh in Cape Town.

While their new ground takes shape in Hendon, Saracens still train near St Albans and play at Watford's Vicarage Road. In recent times, they have also played a handful of games at Wembley. When that idea was first mooted, many laughed at the scale of the club's ambition, but the cynics fell silent last March when 83,761 spectators, a world record crowd for a club match, watched Saracens host Harlequins at the football stadium.

"It is easier for sides like Northampton, Bath and Leicester because they have captive audiences," Griffiths explains. "They are the big noises in small towns. In London, we have to fight every inch. Nothing comes easy in a city with 13 professional football clubs and a hell of a lot else. We need to be innovative and we need to be bold and we need to do things differently."

Different, in this case, means persuading club sponsors Allianz to part with £8m for naming rights at the new ground. Then Griffiths reels off some of the other differences supporters will notice. "The stadium technology is going to be incredible," he says. "Wi-fi, artificial pitch, four screens, pizzas delivered to your seats, replays available on smart phones. Were going to take rugby to a new level."

Taking rugby to Cape Town (or New York, where they wanted to play Munster) was a step too far for some. Next weekend, though, Saracens will take on Racing Metro in Brussels, the French club being more willing than their Scottish or Irish counterparts to play in improbable (albeit more easily reached) surroundings. The issues now may be geographical rather than cultural, but in breaking new ground there is a clear connection with what Griffiths oversaw in South Africa.

Griffiths says: "What happened back then was a particular journey and a particular challenge in particular circumstances at the time. It was unique in many ways because of what was happening in South Africa and the role the rugby took on as the tournament unfolded. That was another place and another challenge; and this is another place and another challenge now. I suppose what I learned in 1995 is what can happen and what you can achieve if you get that right. There are lots of leadership cliches that apply, but the best is the one that says it's amazing what you can achieve if no one minds who takes the credit. I think we have that kind of spirit at Saracens. .

"We have a clear idea of what were trying to do: get a group of talented people together, treat them unbelievably well, and in return they will try unbelievably hard. That's basically it. And if we get it right then the results will follow."

There is also, of course, the looming possibility of another showdown between the clubs of England (and possibly France) over the redesign of the Heineken Cup. Proposals put forward could diminish the influence – and places available to – Celtic and Italian nations. The English narrative is that the Celts and Italians have it too easy in a relegation-free RaboDirect PRO12 competition and with guaranteed places in Europe. Griffiths explains he cannot talk for the Aviva Premiership as a whole, but is bullish enough on the matter.

"The Heineken Cup is a competition that was created by the unions in the time of Vernon Pugh [the noted administrator of the amateur era]. It is, effectively, a competition run by unions and contested by clubs. If you suggested in football that the Champions League should be run by the Deutscher Fussball-Bund or the Fédération Française de Football there would be some degree of mirth.

"What you need is a clubs competition, contested by clubs and run by clubs. That way, you will end up with a more even playing field, even financial distributions and something that moves forward. That's what the English clubs are basically looking for. They're not looking at it, importantly, at anyone else's expense. The proposals are not that Scottish, Irish and Welsh rugby should be any worse off. The idea is that the cake gets bigger for all.

"The Heineken Cup is a much better proposition for a Scottish, Welsh or Irish club than it is for an English club. That's just the simple fact. Edinburgh finished 11th in the PRO12 last year, but they got to the Heineken cup semi-final. I don't know if Edinburgh would consider that a successful year, but if we finished 11th in the Aviva Premiership that wouldn't be a successful year at all."

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