Springbok Transformation

2016-04-29 10:33

To the untrained eye it seems like a simple issue. Maybe it is and we’ve just complicated it by our love for drama. Whatever it is, where will the Springboks be when race is no longer an issue?

Quota’s – or as many have been saying, the other word for ‘transformation’. But there’s a bit of confusion here, because when politicians use the “T” word, they mean quotas, but when Rugby admin uses it, they mean genuine ‘transformation’ – not just representation on the field, but enhancing previously disadvantaged Rugby structures, and (indirectly) in our thinking as well.

There’s a blind deeply troubling assumption that ‘more players of color’ = weaker Springboks. And if the ANC’s enforced ‘quotas’ are racist, then the above assumption is definitely racist as well. But flinging mud at each other is not going to help anyone.

I don’t support of quotas at all (the idea of picking a player just for the color of his skin), but we’re confusing two different issues here – albeit with a very subtle difference. The transformation bandwagon (brought out at World cup time) has valid reasoning. For a while, post-Apartheid Rugby in SA still discriminated against players of color. If two players of different race were up for a position, the white player would be advanced and given more time/opportunities to adapt to senior level rugby. This is at the root of the problem.

Francois Hougaaard said that he felt embarrassed to be playing wing in 2013 (even though he sees himself as a scrumhalf) whilst Lwazi Mvovu sat on the bench (after a good season).

An early example: Tinus Linee (earned over 100 caps for WP in the semi-pro era) was renowned for being a hard tackler, yet despite earning ‘Springbok colors’, he never actually played a test match. Compare that to Springbok 13 Japie Mulder, who made his debut against the All Blacks. Fast forward ten years later and Jake White’s excuse (after the 2006 loss to the French at Newlands) that he was unable to pick some white players for his squad "because of transformation"… A head-scratcher for sure because of that team, only 2 were non-white, Eddie Andrews & Bryan Habana (with Enrico Januarie and Wayne Julies on the bench).

This is just small echoes of the (let’s call it a) ‘habit’ of prejudice in SA rugby to not provide equal opportunity. It’s an embedded mental barrier that possibly only the younger generation can overcome, producing the kneejerk (wrong) politically motivated ANC reaction.

The temptation, especially for us younger generations, is to dismiss quotas and transformation as simply a political tool and to ignore history (coming from me who watched the ‘95 WC final supporting the Springboks, while my dad backed the All Blacks)… but the fact is, with or without the race issue, supporting the Springboks can be incredibly frustrating… and history informs this as well, because SA rugby is a tangled mess with dynamics as entwined as much as it is loved in this country.

Many of our own citizens don’t quite understand the complexities.

It’s not, or it wasn’t just about race. Cultural and language barriers advanced divisions, adding spice to the North-South derbies… the Afrikaner Northern Transvaal (Blou Bulle) vs the (rugby liberals of) WP. It was also a clash of rugby ideology, the 15 man game vs the 10 man game (territory, kick, maul, crash-ball)… the latter being synonymous with the green and gold; which brings me to my next area of historical contention.

‘The Spiritual home of Springbok Rugby’

You’ve heard it said, even by international commentators every time the Springboks play at Ellis Park, but especially when they play the All Blacks, and I’ll admit there is a special atmosphere at the ground, but the truth is a little different.

Okay, maybe I should correct myself; Ellis Park is the spiritual home of Springbok rugby, but the home of South African rugby, is Newlands.

Historically, Newlands is the oldest ground, whilst the Western Province Rugby Board predates the SA Rugby Board. The game, naturally, was first introduced in the Mother city, and then it was taken up to the other provinces. SARU President stated that ‘only in the Western Cape… can the sport been be regarded as a national sport’. There’s a show called CapeRugbyTV, which showcases the rich schools and club rugby culture of the Western Cape – it’s here that you can see the diversity of the game, as well as the natural expansive style of play.

Looking at some old youtube videos of Currie Cup matches in the 70’s and 80’s it struck me how many offloads and linebreaks were on show. Yes the defences weren’t as well organized and players weren’t as fit etc, but the skill-set was there.

I mention all of this just to illustrate how deep the divisions are within SA Rugby, but those divisions are closing rapidly, at least at the professional level.

The younger generation, the new Springboks of the last five years, are naturally all in their 20’s, many of them “bornfree’s”, and they are unburdened by all this history.

But that doesn’t mean it all just goes away. We would like to embrace the proud Rugby heritage, but then neglect the negative elements, content to wipe the slate clean and pretend that discrimination is over and done with. I believe we’re on the road toward that, but some work needs to be done yet. Some on the pitches of the country, but most work needs to be done in our minds and hearts (much like the name of a local rugby club here in the WC, Est. 1927 – ‘Hands & Hearts’).

Transformation – aka ‘Quotas’

Chester Williams sums up the distaste for quotas in his book and the incident with Harry Viljoen; I am however, in support of genuine transformation. To think that (as SARU has stated) all Springboks in history have only ever emerged from the equivalent of 10% of the schools in SA. It’s for this reason that Nick Mallet once said that the potential of SA Rugby is scary, to think that the WC has around 100 000 rugby players.. more than countries like Wales, Ireland and Italy.

I’ve read on many rugby forums that many people think that quotas will mean the Springboks will now start losing or won’t be performing at their best… This mentality is linked to the root of the prejudice in the SA game.

The sentiment above points to a great deal of confusion about the term ‘Transformation’. South Africa has always produced quality players of color, of world class standard, they just weren’t allowed to compete, or weren’t privileged  to have top level coaching. Last year an SA blogger (Jean Kriek) put together a parody squad of 22 players called “Quota Springboks”… meant as a joke, but closer inspection of the players (based on current 2016 form), revealed a very good team of international standard.

[Included were the likes of Trevor Nyakane, Beast, Habana, Mvovo, De Jongh, Elton Jantjies, Siya Kolisi, Cheslin Kolbe, Seabelo Senatla, Nizaam Carr and Scarra Ntubeni] – Notable absentees were Gio Aplon, Brian Mujati, Ashley Johnson and JP Pieterson. Realistically, the only weakness in the squad, was in the lock positions.

Why do I bring this up? – Because If any one of these players were given the green and gold jersey (in the next few years), no one should question their ability or legitimacy. Like I said, based on current form… there are a number of white players deserving of a Springbok berth as well… but my point here is that the notion that the Springbok’s level of competitiveness will drop, is not only racist, but also a plain slap in the face of these professionals and the work they’ve put in to get to where they’re at now. – And I’m leveling that to citizens of SA, as well as the ANC.

Yes there will always be moans and groans come team/squad selection, and why was this player not picked etc… But that has been the case for virtually every single Springbok team… even the gold standard of 2009. That’s because player selection is subjective.  There’s always issues of coaches maybe favouring ‘their’ players, showing provincial bias, experience over youth, form vs class/pedigree, combinations, cohesion etc. it’s fine balancing act.

The issue of transformation, in reality, is the ANC trying to paper over its failures in raising the level of the SA education system (including sport at junior level), whilst an ‘all/predominantly-white’ Springboks forms as a constant reminder of both their failure (and that of SARU) and the past ill’s (within the game’s structures and society) that are still sorting themselves out today, bringing these issues to the fore just prior to elections.


The Springboks may have won 2 WC’s, but between and after those tournaments, their record has been erratic, whilst our rivalry with NZ has been woeful. Transformation is needed, in mind and in the way we play the game.  However change is coming, without abandoning traditional SA rugby strengths, our franchises are embracing the more enterprising style of play as the game has evolved. The Springbok’s reputation is also vastly improved and ‘cleaner’ than it’s ever been, moving away from incidences like Bakkies’ head butt, Burger’s eye gouging, Dean Greyling’s assault on McCaw, Jannes Labuschagne’s late shoulder-charge on Wilkinson, James Small trying to trip Christian Cullen… moving toward discipline, controlled aggression and bravery.

‘Two wrongs don’t make a right’ – and it’s true, but I’m also sensitive to the fact that the old mentality needs to change – that of ‘always pick the white player’ (to be on the safe side). This is symptomatic of ‘the white player is better’, and ‘players’ of color are only good for the Wing’s (because of their pace)… it’s also prevalent in society/business, where people of color have had to work twice as hard just to make the same grade. The White population had exclusive rights, a ‘highway’ whilst everyone else had back roads and gravel roads, and in many cases, no roads. Transformation is about constructing those avenues and roads, whilst the fast-track highway still exists. The sad part is, that as times are changing and good citizens correct the system naturally and organically, we find ourselves in a position where ‘quotas’ are seen by a few as the only option left. In other words, Rugby authorities DO need a kick up the backside, but so do the ANC… right now both parties are pointing the finger at each other, when they’ve both failed.

The truth is that many times in the past “arguably” our best 15 players did NOT take to the field – and that had nothing to do with race or transformation, but internal Rugby politics. SA Rugby has a habit of picking brawn over brains/pace/flair … the subject of player selection has always been subjective.

This is a can of worms we do actually need to open and confront. The Colored SA Rugby Board was founded in 1896, a clear point in history to change the perception of “rugby is a white man’s game”, when 4 of the first 10 rugby clubs in South Africa, were non-white. Rugby is embraced as a South African National sport. The sooner we all become truly conscious of that the quicker we can move with the times. More “players of color” does not equal mediocrity… the issue is, how to implement “EQUAL OPPORTUNITY” within an inherently unequal system? The answer though, is not quotas.

[A note on BAFANA BAFANA: It’s well overdue that all the Top 40 Private schools in SA start Soccer programs as feeders for SA football clubs. They have state of the art facilities (for Cricket, Rugby, tennis and in some cases even Water-Polo. Bishops High in CT, has 8 fields for Cricket and 9 for Rugby, but none for Soccer… this needs rectification/Transformation!]

As an Aussie journalist/blogger said, during last year’s World Cup when thinking about the USA being called a ‘sleeping giant of Rugby’, he said that when considering how well the Bok’s have done, with only a tiny fraction of the SA populace’s rugby pool of talent (thanks to the Apartheid regime’s efficacy in constructing a veritable ‘rugby factory’). Taking into account the amount of players we have abroad… if SA actually taps into its potential, with the deeply embedded rugby culture, South Africa and the Springboks are the real sleeping giant, or as he put it, “a sleeping monster of Rugby”.

-         -  Do yourself a favour and go see the SA Rugby Museum opposite the V&A Waterfront to see the rich history of Rugby in this beautiful country of ours. Our greatest rivalry on the field may be the All Blacks, but in truth… our greatest rivals are ourselves, fighting our inner prejudices, striving for the ideal.

ALSO - can we please get the SABC to broadcast RUGBY, Tests and Super Rugby - this is only compounding the exclusivity issue!

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