'Sorry, I'm getting a little bit emotional' - the grim reality of liquidating a professional rugby club
It’s been a crazy few weeks for Braam van Straaten, the 49-year-old former Springboks fly-half: it was September 23, a few days before payday, when it emerged that his PRO14 Southern Kings had gone bust, late October when he touched down in Bermuda to take charge of the start-up Phoenix team on an adventure that culminated in him togging out and kicking the winning penalty in a World Tens quarter-final match on Saturday.
In between, there was a lot of blood, sweat and tears. There was an August inkling all wasn’t right at the struggling Kings where van Straaten, the 21-cap Boks back who also played Premiership for Leeds and Sale, was assisting boss Robbi Kempson.
It had been announced the Kings wouldn’t play again until the new year due to the ongoing pandemic. However, no one envisaged their whole set-up getting liquidated, accumulated debt of £2.6million leaving administrators pulling the plug and laying off everyone rather than finding a workable solution.
The outcome infuriated van Straaten – 52 families had suddenly been left to fend for themselves, their contracts deemed worthless by those footing the Kings bill. He vowed not to allow anyone to go hungry.
Six weeks later, he won’t point the finger of blame. The rows and recriminations are for others to argue over. Instead, his focus remains simply to raise some emergency funds to temporarily tide over those most in need.
Kings Liquidation. As a Rugby community , We are really counting on You, Family and Friends to help us in our hour off need. Please share this message far and wide. I know the boys will appreciate your help allot. ?God Bless. https://t.co/yBAsioBmBf pic.twitter.com/O9q9tKT1Tt
— Braam van Straaten (@BraamvStraaten1) September 26, 2020
Overnight, the Care 4 Kings fundraising initiative was formed and so selfless was van Straaten he even put his own Springboks blazer up for auction. Some players got lucky, getting picked up by rival South African franchises or going to France while a number of others got contracted to play in Bermuda at the three-weekend tens event which organisers hope is the forerunner to establishing a worldwide circuit next year.
Even while coaching his unheralded Phoenix side at an inaugural seven-team tournament where the headline acts lined up in opposition include Ben Foden and DTH van der Merwe, van Straaten was busy keeping the Kings fight going from afar in the Caribbean.
“This opportunity in Bermuda was incredible,” he told RugbyPass. “We got the opportunity to bring some Kings people on the Phoenix side and there are four boys who made it with some other sides. That has given us the opportunity to make the cake a little bigger for the people that have been left behind. Those (tens) boys have been sorted, they will be paid before they leave the island, and some of the rest of staff have got opportunities elsewhere.
“We made a payment a week ago of not a lot but close to R5,000 (£244 each) to 31 people and hopefully we can do that again on the 22nd and again after that. If we keep them afloat, we give them hope for the future and it’s about caring, that’s the main thing. They just know there is somebody fighting their cause. I won’t stop until everybody is sorted.”
Further auctions and a fund-raising golf day await when he gets back to Port Elizabeth, but soothing the trauma of sudden unemployment isn’t easy. “The Care 4 Kings campaign is very close to my heart. We have worked really hard to be able to assist players and staff. 52 families were just left in the cold. I put my hand up and said I’m definitely not going to leave it here because it wasn’t our fault and I stood my ground.
“We have moved from 52 people to 31 that haven’t had income. We have made one payment to 31 players and staff that haven’t had any income for the last couple of months and if we can give them a little push with another two or three payouts, they can get through to the new year when maybe there is an opportunity for them to sign another contract.”
The exasperating thing about Kings is so many on their payroll weren’t big earners who could put away a little something for the rainy day. There was also incredulity that players were still being signed even though someone at the top must surely have known a train wreck was coming down the track.
“We started off with a very young squad that didn’t get big opportunities, really talented players at the start of their career, so their contracts were quite small and they had to live from month to month,” explained van Straaten about the harsh realities of PRO14 rugby at the lower end of the scale wih=th Kings compared to your Leinsters and your Glasgows.
“You know when you sign a three-year deal with an escalation of ten per cent every year, you plan your life accordingly. Then what happened was some of the players like Cameron Wright, six weeks before the bomb dropped, signed a two-year deal (from the Sharks).
Imagine this: you are called in to a meeting and the news is shared with you that you will not be paid this month. Neither will you be paid the next month. Or the next. As an extra bonus: your career might be over. pic.twitter.com/98bO6eARzZ
— Southern Kings (@SouthernKingsSA) October 7, 2020
“He bought a new house, bought furniture and after six weeks he had to sell his furniture and go back and live with his folks-in-law in Durban. Those things I’m really disappointed about. When it happened I was quite agitated, quite fuming around the mouth but you can’t do anything about it.
“We have to focus on what we can do in the future to be able to assist and that for me was the cornerstone of my thinking. I really care about these players. They are my family and in rugby, there is an ethos that you don’t leave anybody behind enemy lines. We want to look after everyone and I will definitely have the energy to keep on going for as long as I can to make sure that everybody gets assisted in this regard.
“We can’t change what happened. I know people have a lot of questions. Hopefully, that will all come out in the future but my main focus is to make sure we care for all the players and staff affected. We didn’t know it was going to happen and it’s not a lot of money if you are talking in British pounds, but in South African money it’s R55m so it’s quite a lot of money.
“Hopefully in the near future, there will be some good news coming out of the ashes. Something good came out of the ashes (for me) and all of a sudden I was the coach of the Phoenix in Bermuda. You can’t script that. To get some players out of that (Kings) circumstance and get them to play the game they love and get paid for it is absolutely fantastic. You have seen smiles on their faces, pinching themselves they are in Bermuda playing a tens tournament which is absolutely fantastic.
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LOT 41 Braam van Straten Springbok blazer Starting bid: R10,000.00 Abraham Johannes Jacobus “Braam” van Straaten (born 28 September 1971) is a former South African rugby union footballer. He was capable of playing either at fly-half or centre, and represented the Springboks in 21 tests from 1999 to 2001, scoring 221 points. Item condition: Used The first project of Care 4 Kings will kick off this Friday, where the online rugby memorabilia online auction will take place. All rugby enthusiasts can bid on, amongst others, the Springbok rugby blazer of Braam van Straaten, the Sharks jersey from AJ Venter and the World Cup winning rugby jersey of Mzwandile Wanky Stick. Go to www.care4kings.co.za to register or follow the link in bio. Follow their Facebook page: Care4Kings or Instagram @care4kings. Herewith the banking details for Care 4 Kings to back this initiative. This account is administered by Opus Accounting. Care 4 Kings FNB Cheque Account 62870068650 Branch code 231002 Proof of payment to: firstname.lastname@example.org Reference: CARE4KINGS + YOUR NAME
“That for me is really, really special and hopefully within the next couple of months we will have some more good news,” continued van Straaten, explaining why he donated to Kings some treasures accumulated over the course of his Test playing career from 1999 to 2001. “These things that I stand for, honesty, integrity, love and care is much bigger than a Springboks blazer.
“You can’t compare the two so for me giving that Springboks blazer away, to be able to be auctioned off, doesn’t even touch where I come from. For me, it’s a principled thing. I’m an individual man that stands by my principles. Sorry, I’m getting a little bit emotional here but show a bit of love, this is what it’s all about.
“In times like Covid, if you don’t stick together people are going to go down. Let’s create a bit of hope for everybody involved and that will go a long way. Show your heart to me. Show that you really, really care. That’s my biggest drive and I will keep on driving until we see the light in the tunnel.
“I’m a big man of faith and sometimes your faith gets tested. Sometimes when something like this happens things can go pear-shaped really quickly. What happened to me is I ran into a couple of closed doors and all of a sudden I just said Lord I need a bit of luck here.
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Thank you for your support! Online rugby auction on the way now. Go to www.care4kings.co.za to bid! #repost @davelevinsohn ??? This is #care4kings to raise money for the players and coaches who have been affected by the liquidation at the Kings We will be doing a rugby memorabilia online auction on Friday & Saturday. To register and auction go to www.care4kings.co.za. tag @care4kings on either FB and or Instagram.
“What happened is straight after I put the bible down, the phone rang and the lady on the other side of the phone had a big marketing company who gave a late push to our Care 4 Kings, getting some international Springboks we didn’t have access to acknowledge it.
“What happened to us at the Kings must not happen to anyone else ever again. What has happened to us, you can’t write a script. They said yes we will honour your contracts and three weeks later you walk into a meeting and they say sorry, we are liquidating the company and you’re not getting paid this month, four days before payday. Wow.
“That’s a shock but at least the boys know somebody is fighting for them and that is what I will be doing. I’m a little bit of a hard nose when it comes to that and that is the way I bring my children up. If it’s not my mistake I’m not going to leave it, I’m going to stand my ground and fight the right cause.”
The optimist in van Straaten is hopeful the sudden demise of the Kings isn’t the obituary for professional rugby in the Eastern Cape, the area where World Cup-winning skipper Siya Kolisi and colleagues such as Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am hail from. “I’m an optimist and there are some big things happening behind the scenes that I can’t talk too much about but we what to make sure the Eastern Cape, one of the main areas of development in our country, doesn’t go to waste.”
In the meantime, he will enjoy his last days in Bermuda where away from the matches featuring privately-owned teams playing a 20-minute rugby code with five-point conversions, there has been bonding over an array of activities such as cleaning up rubbish along the railway, coaching at local clubs, recovery sessions in the ocean and boat cruises.
“The big businessmen coming in privatising the sport and some of the franchises, that is the way to go because all of a sudden it will be driven like an organisation, not just a rugby franchise,” reckoned van Straaten. “We can give the global game a massive push, maybe take it away from the people that have been running it for so long.
“The big thing is to get investors that really have got a heart for the game, that want to see the game progress to new levels, like what is happening with the tens. These guys have taken a calculated risk to produce something better and that is the way the game needs to go.
“I do believe this tens product is like the 50-over game in cricket. You have got the T20 which is the sevens and you have got the Test match which is the Super Rugby or Test rugby, but this is well-positioned. They can really grow it. It gives another pathway for players to be able to be seen on the international scene.
?Rolling back the years…..
— World Tens Series (@WorldTens) November 7, 2020
“I believe they have got an incredible product and people need to back them. If you have seen the energy these guys have put into organising this tournament you will know they have got their heads right screwed on. What the organisers did was an incredible job, putting this together in a very short space of time.
“I’ve been fortunate to play here three times in the Classic World Cup with South Africa, very fortunate to win it twice. Bermuda is an incredible destination and I like the concept of tens because it brings a lot of other players into the fray, the burly boys, so the sevens boys can’t have it their own way. You have to earn the right to go wide.”
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