Demographic dilemmas of SA rugby

2014-06-15 15:00

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In 2004, a young Springbok trotted on to the field in the 70th minute at Twickenham as a replacement in a test against England.

In the 73rd minute, he received the ball for the first time and, with a burst of blinding speed, scored his first try for South Africa.

His name was Bryan Habana – spelt with a “y” after Manchester United legend Bryan Robson. Habana was just 21 and marked himself as a player to keep an eye on. He would make the Springbok No 11 jersey his own and become a legend in the lore of the green and gold.

Fittingly, No 11 was also the jersey worn by Chester Williams, and Habana would go on to emulate the “black pearl of SA rugby”. But South African rugby is still searching for its next great black Springbok.

A young man called Cornal Hendricks is the latest to be thrust into the spotlight. The 26-year-old was last year’s Sevens Player of the Year and made his test debut in Durban yesterday.

Will he make it and become a household name like Williams and Habana? Or will he be a shooting star like so many before him?

The quest to transform the Springboks through the application of the awful but perhaps unavoidable quota has resulted in too many players being given a sniff of glory only for the big chance to evaporate.

Some were picked too soon. Others have been struck down by injuries, perhaps because they were not yet ready for the hurly-burly of test rugby. A good few were found to be not good enough and, too often, the need to satisfy government’s equity demands resulted in quasi selections.

A case in point is Chiliboy Ralepelle*, first selected by Jake White in 2006. Unable to cement a regular match day place, Ralepelle moved to Toulouse last year. He earned 21 caps but only two as a member of the starting line-up and there can be little argument his potential was stunted by being thrown in among the big boys too soon.

Jake White, under pressure to include more black players, gave Ralepelle his debut at the age of 20 but Heyneke Meyer, then coach of the Bulls, was not in favour of the selection as he felt Chili was too young. “Give him time,” said Meyer, “and he’ll captain the Springboks.”

Yet Meyer has been forced to go down the same road. The current coach has included loose forward Teboho Mohoje and centre S’bura Sithole on the promising evidence of their first seasons in Super Rugby. But only time will tell whether the pair will become regulars in the squad or whether their elevation is window dressing to improve the demographics.

Players like Elton Jantjies, Bjorn Basson, Raymond Rhule and Lionel Mapoe have come and gone under Meyer while Scarra Ntubeni’s involvement ceased due to injury.

Peter de Villiers and Jake White also wrestled with the conundrum. De Villiers called up the likes of Brian Mujati, Jongi Nokwe, Earl Rose, Ashley Johnson, Bandise Maku and Davon Raubenheimer. Under White, Hanyane Shimange, Kabamba Floors, Bevan Fortuin and the tragic Solly Tyibilika (eight caps as the No 6 flank) fell through the cracks.

Former Zimbabwean Tendai Mtawarira with 53 caps is the most-capped black Springbok forward, followed by prop Lawrence Sephaka – the current Springbok women’s coach – with 24.

Others such as Gcobani Bobo, Tonderai Chavhanga, Tim Dlulane, Kaya Molotane, Thando Manana, Owen Nkumane and the Ndungane twins Akona and Odwa were given chances but never fully committed to or were considered to be the best in their positions.

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