Boks in need of World Cup

Herald on Sunday - - IN OTHER NEWS -

Of course the 2023 Rugby World Cup should go to South Africa. The rec­om­men­da­tion the Rain­bow Na­tion host the tour­na­ment will be con­sid­ered this week by World Rugby — though many, per­haps even most, rugby folk favour Ire­land and France; there are even veiled threats of le­gal ac­tion.

But there are con­sid­er­a­tions far be­yond rugby pro­mot­ing South Africa ahead of the other can­di­dates.

It’s been es­ti­mated the RWC will bring al­most $3 bil­lion into the South African econ­omy. That is sig­nif­i­cant be­cause South Africa’s growth rate last year was a measly 0.3 per cent and it moved into re­ces­sion in the first quar­ter of this year.

At least 5 per cent growth is needed be­fore poverty and un­em­ploy­ment can be tack­led ef­fec­tively. More than 55 per cent of South Africans (about 30 mil­lion) live un­der the poverty line (down from 66 per cent). Un­em­ploy­ment now stands at just un­der 28 per cent, the worst for 14 years.

Even more wor­ry­ingly, 39 per cent of the un­em­ployed have never had a job. Ever. That fig­ure rises to 60 per cent for youth.

No one is pre­tend­ing a sin­gle RWC will work an eco­nomic mir­a­cle. But it may give the coun­try a shot in the arm — so­cially, eco­nom­i­cally and rugby-wise — that Ire­land and France do not need quite as much.

The stats above help ex­plain the vi­o­lent crime and the shanty towns still fring­ing the big cities. Those shanties once pro­duced the spark that be­came the anti-apartheid flame. They used to rail against racial in­equal­ity; now they demon­strate against el­e­men­tary ameni­ties de­nied them by un­der­funded coun­cils or cor­rupt of­fi­cials.

There are rugby rea­sons, too. Few who wit­nessed the 1995 World Cup in South Africa will for­get the joy the Spring­boks’ win brought to a still di­vided na­tion, the mo­ral and cul­tural heal­ing led by Nel­son Man­dela.

Some at­ti­tudes took longer to heal. In 2003, Spring­bok for­ward Geo Cronje was banned from World Cup se­lec­tion af­ter he was ac­cused of not want­ing to share a room with a “player of colour”.

And, yes, the Boks have won two World Cups since re-ad­mis­sion — but no one would sug­gest the Boks are as strong now as the brood­ing, com­mit­ted pow­er­houses for so long the neme­sis of All Black rugby.

South Africa op­er­ates a quota sys­tem for its Su­per Rugby teams and for the Spring­boks — called, in the cu­ri­ous nomen­cla­ture of the times, “trans­for­ma­tion” play­ers . . . quota play­ers ap­par­ently be­ing too de­mean­ing. There is no ques­tion this has con­trib­uted to the Boks’ de­cline. It may be a noble goal po­lit­i­cally and so­cially but it comes with ma­jor men­tal and phys­i­cal hand­i­caps.

The Boks’ 57-0 loss against the All Blacks would never have hap­pened in the old days. In­te­gra­tion of play­ers is a ques­tion­able achieve­ment if the Bok game doesn’t sur­vive the trans­for­ma­tion.

More than one coach has been crit­i­cised for not in­clud­ing more coloured play­ers. One politi­cian com­plained for­mer coach Jake White had sti­fled blacks’ se­lec­tion be­cause he wanted the team to be a win­ning one. “It’s not about a win­ning team,” said the politi­cian. “It’s about a win­ning team that has the sup­port of the coun­try be­hind it.”

For­mer Bok skip­per Naas Botha crit­i­cises the way trans­for­ma­tion is used to ex­cuse the Spring­boks’ de­cline; he blames di­min­ished skill lev­els in South African rugby: “I just get fed up with peo­ple say­ing the quota sys­tem is the prob­lem,” he told the Guardian this week. “Ab­so­lute non­sense. We lose be­cause we’re not playing well.”

One of the fore­most thinkers in South African rugby, record-set­ting for­mer coach Nick Mal­lett, says the po­lit­i­cal goal of 50 per cent black play­ers in the Boks team is close.

“. . . it is pos­si­ble to get close to that 50 per cent mark even now. But the coaches and se­lec­tors haven’t used their brains. We even picked a white half­back, Fran­cois Hougaard, on the wing. It was a poor de­ci­sion be­cause we have some great black wingers. It was a real slap in the face of any com­pet­i­tive black player,” he told the Guardian.

So what does all this have to do with the host­ing of a World Cup? Sim­ply this: World Rugby talks about grow­ing the game glob­ally. Let’s grow it first in a for­mer strong­hold suf­fer­ing hard times.

A World Cup in South Africa could, with adroit man­age­ment and selec­tions, see a truly in­te­grated Bok team per­form­ing well on the world stage — which would surely help re­vive Spring­bok for­tunes and bring sport’s unit­ing and heal­ing qual­i­ties into play. It’s also just the right thing to do.

Stag­ing the Rugby World Cup in South Africa would be good for the na­tion’s econ­omy — and the Boks.

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