As a die-hard Stormers/Western Province supporter (for my sins), I am again puzzled by a number of problems bedevilling South African rugby. These are the issue over which I puzzle.
Johannesburg has a larger population than New Zealand, and is far richer, in terms of resources and depth of talent. What do they produce? The Lions.
Cross the Jukskei and you’re in Rugby country, where you can go to Menlyn Mall on a Saturday morning and meet the Bulls. And that is a draw-card in that city. And they play a pretty decent brand of rugby, even though they are the enemy. I still consider Naas Botha the finest rugby player I have ever seen.
I remember many titanic struggles between Northern Transvaal, as it was then known, and Western Province, where he made the difference between the two teams. He did the same things once to Transvaal in a Currie Cup final, where he scored all the points.
But New Zealand, with a far smaller pool of players than us and, in fact Australia, with an even smaller pool, are beating us regularly, both in club and test rugby. And it puzzles me. Why should this be happening?
It’s not lack of passion, or skill or, as some people believe, cheating refs. I think I’ve identified it, and it’s been staring us in the face for years. And we can fix it, but it’s going to take time.
That’s it. Rugby League. Many of their players cross over from Rugby league and their ball-handling is far superior to ours; the lines they run make ours look static and, we may boss them in the line-outs, but their overall ball skills are superior to ours. Even with a wet ball.
We have to make Rugby League a part of South African culture if we’re going to catch up with, and then beat them, consistently. And that is going to take time. But Rugby League has a huge following in both those countries, because it is fast, slick, very professional and produces tries. It’s partly the reason for the success of Sevens Rugby.
But Sevens is not a training ground for Rugby Union, where I believe Rugby League is.
If you think how well we compete as it is, it’s quite astonishing. But imagine the depth of talent we have, allied with the skills produced by a constant stream of players coming across from Rugby League.
I think we could safely say the William Webb Ellis Trophy would make its permanent home in South Africa.