Rugby Union: Wales and Ireland told to call off SA tours

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The Independent Online
LOUIS LUYT, the dictatorial president of the South African Rugby Football Union, is fond of saying that he bows before no man. He may, however, find himself obliged to bow before his country's National Sports Council, which yesterday asked both Ireland and Wales to postpone their imminent close-season tours to Springbok territory until the internal political controversy is resolved.

The council raised the stakes following Luyt's bullish refusal to quit his post on Thursday, despite being heavily outvoted by the Sarfu executive. The millionaire businessman from the Transvaal was protected by regulatory machinery preventing any forced dismissal without a period of notice.

However, accusations of racism, corruption and nepotism in the highest echelons of the Springbok administration gathered new momentum as a result of Luyt's stubbornness in staying put. Last night's postponement request merely increased the weight on the president's broad but sagging shoulders.

Gideon Sam, who chaired a five-hour meeting of the NSC in Johannesburg yesterday, made direct appeals to both Dublin and Cardiff. "We are in the process of sorting out one of our members [Sarfu], which is not in good standing with us, and we would ask our friends in Ireland and Wales to postpone their coming to South Africa," he said. Fellow NSC officials added that the union had been suspended from the council.

There was no official word from either home nation last night, but the subtext of the NSC's hard-line stance against Luyt has always been that the safety of rugby tourists could not be guaranteed. Given that the council is confident of mobilising thousands of demonstrators to disrupt any unsanctioned tour match, the Irish and Welsh appeared to have little option but to accede to the request.

England, who are scheduled to play a one-off Test against the Springboks in Cape Town in early July, have not been approached by the council. Neither have the unions of Australia and New Zealand, who are due to compete in a multi-million pound Tri-Nations tournament this summer.

President Mandela and the South African government are foursquare behind the council in their attack on Luyt and his controversial record as the most unashamedly autocratic figure in world rugby. Indeed, much of black South Africa was infuriated by Sarfu's decision to force Mr Mandela into testifying during their successful court challenge of his decision to appoint a judicial commission to investigate the union's activities.

Last night's council statement inevitably set the alarm bells ringing around the rival rugby powers of the southern hemisphere. The Australians, keen supporters of the anti-apartheid boycott of South Africa in the 1970s and 80s, indicated they would do everything in their power to secure the immediate future of the Tri-Nations by isolating Luyt.

Nothing, however, has been heard from the International Rugby Board on the issue. The IRB could barely wait to take England's Premiership clubs to task for mounting a legal challenge with the European Commission against what they consider anti-competitive regulations - indeed the 12 top-flight Allied Dunbar clubs are officially in exile- but no senior board figure has uttered a word on the far more serious allegations against the Luyt regime.

In truth, neither Ireland nor Wales will feel suicidal at the prospect of seeing their tours collapse. The Irish, whitewashed in this season's Five Nations' Championship, are in no obvious shape to face the world champions while the Welsh are yet again in a state of flux after yesterday's abrupt departure of their coach, Kevin Bowring.

The likelihood, though, is that Luyt will accept the inevitable at some point over the next fortnight. "We are certainly not panicking about things yet," said David Moffett, chief executive of the New Zealand Rugby Union, last night.