Mind games: Time for the sport of rugby to adapt or die

2015-03-01 15:00

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A startling item went by almost unnoticed in the SA Rugby Union (Saru) presentation of the latest strategic transformation plan – the fact that half-a-billion rand has been spent on development.

This is what has been spent since unification (of the old, racially divided SA Rugby Board and Saru bodies) in 1992. It was revealed by Saru CEO Jurie Roux when he set out the newest plan to remove the stigma of race bias that clings to rugby.

As all the unions have also spent vast sums of money on what used to be called “development”, but is now “transformation”, it is an indictment on past and present rugby officials.

Given how little has been achieved in the quest to make rugby truly representative, there can be no conclusion other than that a large part of these funds have been wasted – despite Saru’s protestations to the contrary.

Rugby’s lasting reputation as the beloved game of the Afrikaner, with the inevitable ties to our former National Party rulers that this brought, meant the game has always been targeted as harbouring racist traits.

Because of this, the game was held in contempt by many black South Africans and its path post-1994 was always going to be harder and trickier than other sports. To this day, when the parliamentary portfolio committee feels the urge to meddle, it is rugby that is on the carpet.

There have been some achievements. As Roux pointed out: “Saru has had a black president for 17 years; our executive council is 75% black; we’ve had a black Springbok coach; the leading Springbok try scorer of all time is black [Bryan Habana]”.

This speaks of insincerity and prejudice from many officials of the old order. It also can’t be denied that black players have been let down by their kin who were appointed to influential positions, but failed to exercise the necessary managerial influence.

Development officers who were appointed were unskilled and in need of training. Too often, players were pushed into the Springbok side too soon resulting in incapacitating injuries, which prevented them from reaching their full potential.

The strategic transformation plan is the product of thorough research and careful collaboration and Saru president Oregan Hoskins has gone as far as to look at it as his life’s work as a rugby administrator.

It seems an honest effort to get transformation right and – unlike all previous missions – it contains a mechanism to continually check progress to ensure that none of the union’s affiliates stray.

The game is under pressure from government, crowds are dwindling, it is no longer the sporting bastion at schools, figures show the majority of new players will be black and the demographic of crowds is changing – so rugby has to adapt or die.

This time Saru has to make it work. It has no choice.

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