Rad­i­cal rugby trans­for­ma­tion

Poverty at root of in­equity in the sport, writes

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

NEW ZEALAND rugby teams have long re­garded games at Newlands as the next best thing to play­ing on their home ground – and when the All Blacks run on to the field this evening, they will see why some lo­cal fans re­gard Cape Town as “Lit­tle New Zealand”.

Kieran Reid and his team will re­ceive a wel­come re­served for re­turn­ing heroes.

Dur­ing the match, sup­port­ers will cheer every All Black ma­noeu­vre and jeer every Spring­bok mis­take. The ques­tion is: why? There are three main rea­sons. Some South African fans sup­port the New Zealan­ders for play­ing rugby that is fast, skil­ful and ex­cit­ing. A sec­ond group sup­ports the All Blacks and teams from other coun­tries be­cause they have never for­got­ten what so-called in­ter­na­tional rugby meant to them dur­ing the apartheid era.

To them, these “test” matches were played by white su­prem­a­cists. And for this rea­son, they hold the Spring­boks in ut­ter con­tempt, even though na­tional teams have no longer been all-white for a num­ber of years.

Strangely enough, dur­ing the apartheid era, these fans sup­ported vis­it­ing teams, even though these vis­i­tors were more than happy to play against all-white Spring­boks.

The third group be­lieves black play­ers and black South Africans were be­trayed by the politi­cians dur­ing the run-up to the first demo­cratic elec­tions in 1994. They have been able to back up their views with com­pelling ar­gu­ments.

Their premise is that the South African Rugby Union (Saru) can never be a cred­i­ble agent for the pro­mo­tion of non-racial sport in this coun­try.

They point out that South play­ers – from schools level right up to club and provin­cial level – were drawn to the game.

But unity stran­gled rugby in the town­ships. Far too lit­tle at­ten­tion was paid to this type of de­vel­op­ment. Sadly, this is still the case to­day.

Clubs with his­to­ries cov­er­ing many decades and, in some in­stances stretch­ing over more than 100 years, be­came de­funct or were forced to amal­ga­mate with other clubs.

Pre­vi­ously white clubs, des­per­ate to prove they were “trans­form­ing”, used their fi­nan­cial clout to “buy” some of the best black play­ers.

Fi­nan­cial clout was still re­tained by white clubs.

Many black ad­min­is­tra­tors and for­mer play­ers be­lieve the Spring­bok should not have been re­tained as the na­tional rugby em­blem. They ar­gue that it is an apartheid sym­bol that con­tin­ues to pro­mote an apartheid mind­set among white sup­port­ers.

Many white sup­port­ers and for­mer white play­ers see black play­ers in rep­re­sen­ta­tive sides, in­clud­ing the Spring­boks, as ir­ri­tat­ing in­trud­ers at worst and nec­es­sary evils at best.

And yet the govern­ment has done noth­ing to en­sure a level play­ing field for black play­ers.

The con­se­quence of this is that every time the Spring­boks or other rep­re­sen­ta­tive sides lose, a cho­rus of “quota” rings out from the lips and pens of white sup­port­ers. If the coach is black, his tac­tics will in­vari­ably be blamed for a team los­ing.

Where coaches are white, the black play­ers in the team, who they were forced to se­lect are blamed for any de­feats.

And yet, un­til the col­lapse of apartheid, the white South African Rugby Board em­ployed the big­gest quota pol­icy ever: a whites-only team. This must not be for­got­ten. Rugby in this coun­try has be­come an elit­ist sport. A nar­row pipe­line to tra­di­tional white rugby schools has been cre­ated to bring in elite groups of black play­ers and to move them through the age groups and even­tu­ally into provin­cial, Super and Spring­bok teams.

The ef­fect of this, though, is that rugby will re­main a pre­dom­i­nantly white sport at the high­est level.

It is lit­tle won­der then that so many black South Africans sup­port teams such as the All Blacks – and that the South African na­tional team seems stuck with a play­ing style far be­hind their op­po­nents.

In the days of apartheid, rugby was seen as the ve­hi­cle that would get promis­ing white play­ers out of ru­ral dis­tricts of South Africa and into glit­ter­ing sport­ing and, later, work­ing ca­reers in the big cities.

Gen­er­ally, this is not true of black play­ers.

In fact, some black Spring­boks have ended up liv­ing in dire cir­cum­stances within a short time of their play­ing ca­reers com­ing to an end.

What needs to be done is the cre­ation of a level play­ing field for all play­ers. How can this be achieved? Firstly, for poverty to be prop­erly tack­led at a po­lit­i­cal level. What govern­ment is do­ing to nar­row the poverty gap is sim­ply not good enough.

The Spring­bok sym­bol should be put out to pas­ture. It has be­come so di­vi­sive that it serves no use­ful pur­pose. It en­cour­ages tri­umphal­ism and a han­ker­ing for the past from those who played and watched the game dur­ing the apartheid era.

Also, the records of apartheid Spring­boks should be purged from of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics. Records should be­gin in 1994 – and there should be a com­mit­ment from Saru to work out of the box, to work harder and to strive to cre­ate proper op­por­tu­ni­ties for every young­ster who is in­ter­ested in play­ing the game.

Fail­ure to do this will damn the na­tional team to a state of medi­ocrity for many years to come.

Oakes is the op-ed edi­tor for In­de­pen­dent Me­dia.

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