Errol Tobias, the first black player to represent South Africa in test rugby, will on Sunday mark 40 years since his landmark debut, and he maintains that his selection was based on “performance and merit” amid accusations he was used as a political pawn.
Tobias was a mercurial fly half, touted by Argentine great Hugo Porta as the best in the world four decades ago, but there was criticism from some quarters of the white and black communities in South Africa when he was selected to play against Ireland on May 30 1981.
The SA Rugby Union took a step previously believed unthinkable under the apartheid regime to include a black player in the Springbok side, long seen as a bastion of Afrikaner machismo.
But veteran administrator Danie Craven recognised the need to integrate the sport across racial lines if there was to be an end to South Africa’s international rugby isolation.
“He lived up to his word when he said that if there is a player of colour who is good enough, he will be selected for the Springboks,” Tobias (71) told Reuters in an exclusive interview.
“My selection against Ireland was so special to me and all people of colour. It was no political choice, but was based on performance and merit. When I got my chance, it was a great success and I proved myself representing South Africa.”
He had already made his name in domestic rugby, but ahead of him in the Bok pecking order was fly half Naas Botha, whose more measured kicking game was in stark contrast to the explosive skill and guile of Tobias.
“I had played against the great Hugo Porta. He said after that he thought I was the best fly half in the world and couldn’t understand why Naas Botha was selected before me. I was on everybody’s lips, people wanted to see me play,” Tobias said.
“I was more ball in hand, but at that stage, the Boks’ style of play was based on a big pack of forwards and a No 10 who can land pin-point kicks. Dominating with the boot. They weren’t used to running with the ball.”
SELECTED ON MERIT
When his dream of putting on the Bok jersey was finally realised at the age of 31, Tobias said the reaction from those close to him was one of unbridled joy, even if there was opposition from both sides of the racial divide.
Some in the black community felt he was a “sell-out” to the anti-apartheid cause, but Tobias argues he wanted to prove that black players could be selected on merit.
“It was the longest week of my life until the game. There was a bit of criticism, but ‘Doc’ Craven said to me: ‘All you need to do is just put on that jersey, run on to the pitch and produce a game of rugby that we are used to from you.’”
The Boks beat Ireland 23-15 in Cape Town, with Tobias, who played at inside centre, making an impression with a typical line break.
“It was the quickest match I ever played in – the time just flew by. The first ball that Naas passed to me, I made a break and gave it to Rob Louw to score a try.
“The [Ireland] captain Fergus Slattery came running up to [centre David] Irwin and said to him: ‘If you think this man is a political choice, you are making a big mistake.’ That meant a lot to me. I felt like he was talking to me as well.”
As for the reception from his team-mates, Tobias says that “by then, people were used to me. I had played in all-white teams at provincial level. They knew the man I was.”
He earned six test caps between 1981 and 1984, a number that no doubt would have been greater were it not for South Africa’s isolation from international sport.
“It was everything to me to represent my country, despite tremendous political pressure from certain circles. I knew I was opening doors for others,” he said.
Almost 40 years later, the first black captain of the Boks, Siya Kolisi, lifted the Rugby World Cup trophy at the 2019 tournament in Japan.
“I never thought I would live to see it. The tears flowed from my eyes, the same as the day when I was selected for the Springboks,” Tobias says.