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New Vodacom Bulls CEO Edgar Rathbone believes that for South African rugby to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic pressures that were building on the game even before this, it needs to focus on strengthening the local game like never before.

And that’s exactly what Rathbone wants to achieve in his new role as CEO of the Vodacom Bulls, and with his vision for Loftus Versfeld of building on the partnership with Mamelodi Sundowns, working closer with Pretoria businesses, increasing the Vodacom Bulls’ digital footprint, and strengthening the relationship with local rugby clubs, schools and universities around Loftus.

Speaking in an interview arranged by Vodacom, Rathbone said the global game has several challenges facing it, but that South Africa needs to keep its eye on the ball locally first.

“There will be tough decisions that need to be made in our structures, and global conversations about the calendar. But our first and foremost focus needs to be to get our local game strong again. In this sense, I can tell you that the leadership we as unions and CEO’s have received from SA Rugby has been exceptional. It’s been clear and there’s been a lot of thinking that’s gone into it,” Rathbone said.

Rathbone settled into his new position with the Vodacom Bulls on 1 June, and his vision that South African rugby needs to strengthen its local base is one he aims to put into action around Loftus Versfeld.

“I think the partnership with Mamelodi Sundowns football club needs to be further developed. We’re trying to get Sundowns to play more of their games at Loftus Versfeld, and making Loftus the hub of Tshwane. I’m also looking at the relationships with universities and clubs and leveraging that more. We need to make sure our clubs are looked after because they are the talent pipeline for us, and their influence within our rugby community is massive.

Then I’d also like to get greater buy-in from Pretoria businesses. There are some unbelievable business leaders in Pretoria, and I want to reach them and share our vision with them. And we’ve all seen, through the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, the growth of digital media. We need to explore that further and monetise the digital side of rugby.”

Rathbone brings with him a celebrated work ethic and business acumen that made him such a highly sought-after candidate for this position. And he says he’s equally excited at working with business titans and Vodacom Bulls shareholders Patrice Motsepe and Johann Rupert and learning from them.

“It’s an absolute privilege to have businessmen like them that you can learn from, and the other leaders on the Vodacom Bulls board like Pieter Uys, Johan van Zyl, Willem Strauss and Stefan Crouse, who are all unbelievable businessmen. They have a clear strategy and plan ahead for the Vodacom Bulls, and are making the right investments in the right areas.”

Having business strength and expertise on the board of South African rugby unions is something Rathbone believes is key to the future growth of a game he believes needs to better manage the balance between the emotional highs and lows of sport, and the hard economic realities that go with it.

“We need to get more business people involved in rugby and run it as a business. I believe COVID-19 has forced us to rethink many aspects of how we run rugby. While at the Lions I worked under Altmann Allers and he taught me key lessons about not getting too emotional about decisions. Sport has a lot of highs and lows, but you need to keep to your business strategy through all of that.  Especially in the good times – you need to stick to your business strategy then, because it’s easy to lose your way when everything is going well. The basic business principle of spending money with the companies who spent money with you is also crucial.

Strategy and team culture plays a very big part in rugby. If the team culture is sound and you treasure your local talent, then I believe it translates to success on the pitch which in turn leads to financial success.

“There are obvious economic threats to rugby currently, but also through supporters and their difficult financial situation. So it’s a question of making the right business decisions first, and spending on the right things. If conditioning in the past was your issue, then we need to spend on the facilities and the gym. That in return gives you results on the pitch and that brings financial success. It’s about identifying the small things that you can change that will bring the difference on the pitch to create financial success, because it also doesn’t help that you have the best run board in the game but you’re not performing on the pitch.”

When it comes to his own leadership style, Rathbone says he prefers to empower the people around him.

“I like to empower people and let them take responsibility of their departments. I decentralise a lot. I have an open-door policy because I believe if you get the culture right within your office, then you have everybody pulling in the same direction. I see my job as to provide the vision and the goal and then to get everybody to buy into that.”

It’s certainly an exciting time of growth for the Vodacom Bulls as Rathbone is joined by a new coach in former Springbok coach Jake White. White said he was equally excited about joining one of the most historic unions in world rugby and a team he likened to the Chicago Bulls and Liverpool of global rugby. It’s a sentiment shared by Rathbone.

“What the Vodacom Bulls have built in terms of a brand is unbelievable and their history is what fuels it. The essence of the Vodacom Bulls brand sits within that history and you need to treasure that. It’s the most successful Vodacom Super Rugby team in South Africa, and it has an unbelievable support base. I’ve always admired that. It has a supporter base that covers all of the demographics, which not a lot of teams have. I’m very excited about the future of the Vodacom Bulls.”

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