Players of colour: Boks lag in quest

Allister Coetzee (Getty)
Allister Coetzee (Getty)

Cape Town – The Springboks are still struggling to infuse, and centrally involve, sufficient numbers of players of colour to provide solid assurance that their “50 percent black” plan for the 2019 World Cup is an attainable goal.

We are already well into a new four-year cycle for the global spectacle – scheduled to kick off in late September 2019 in Japan – and the 31-strong squad revealed by head coach Allister Coetzee on Saturday for the opening portion of the Rugby Championship (home and away dates against Argentina) initially contained 11 players who meet that requirement.

That is a percentage of 35.48.

But subsequently the Boks announced on Monday that burly utility front-ranker Trevor Nyakane has had to withdraw on fitness-related grounds, and been replaced by Sharks tighthead Lourens Adriaanse.

Considering that a credible black candidate as replacement, the emerging Lizo Gqoboka of the Bulls, is also on the crocked list, this means that the Boks slide further back to 10 players of colour: 32.26 percent.

So this is also a dip from the first figure under Coetzee’s fledgling watch: when he named his maiden squad, also containing 31 names, for the recent home series against Ireland, there were 12 players of colour, meaning a percentage of 38.71.

Although there are certain mitigating circumstances – including that inevitable wrecking ball, injury – it is surely not ideal that the Boks have bumped slightly backwards when the intention is presumably to keep the graph inching progressively “north” toward 2019.

Coetzee has omitted rookie Sharks flyhalf Garth April, whose rank inexperience remained too evident at Super Rugby level in the closing weeks of the competition, Stormers hooker Scarra Ntubeni, who has been struggling for meaningful game-time with his franchise (particularly as a starter) and also stalwart wing JP Pietersen.

The coach is arguably correct in saying Pietersen has been significantly over-played and warrants a “break”, considering his dual responsibilities for several years in Japan and with the Sharks, even before you bring in green-and-gold considerations. 

Yet it was still a pretty big call by Coetzee to effectively axe a proven international boasting 69 Test caps and strong physical credentials in an otherwise low-centre-of-gravity back three.

He could not include Siya Kolisi (himself rather hot and cold in his involvement against the Irish) due to the flank’s long-term ankle injury.

With both rugby and cricket under intense Government pressure over transformation and presently banned from pitching for major global events as a result of that dissatisfaction, the Boks are thus in danger of coming under fresh fire from outspoken, unpredictable Sports Minister Fikile Mbabula.

There is, of course, still a counter-lobby suggesting transformation ought to be better or more vigorously carried out at lower tiers of the game, given the danger of pushing certain players into the national set-up before they are ideally ready for it.

Not too long ago, the deputy shadow minister for sport and recreation, Darren Bergman of the Democratic Alliance which made notable gains at the expense of the ANC in the countrywide municipal elections a few days ago, warned that the 2019 goal by SA Rugby was a “funeral policy” and that transformation needed to be carried out “responsibly”.

Coetzee, naturally at the tricky fulcrum of the debate as he juggles the needs of assembling teams giving him best prospects of winning key matches with transformation considerations, is not greatly helped by the fact that the Lions team which ended as Super Rugby runners-up and far and away South Africa’s brightest and most successful outfit, was one of the most white player-dominated of the country’s franchises.

Only Courtnall Skosan (the sprightly left wing would not have been an unpopular call-up on Saturday had Coetzee done so), Lionel Mapoe and Elton Jantjies started the Super Rugby final as players of colour within the Lions’ midst.

The Bok coach is also, through no special fault of his own, in the “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t” category among rugby observers in our complex country -- for every omission of a potentially attractive player of colour, there will inevitably be alternative critics carping that certain picks barely warrant their spots.

One, for example, is the quite obviously out-of-form Sharks flier Lwazi Mvovo, whose defence and work-rate off the ball have been especially exposed this year, whilst someone like Oupa Mohoje, the talented Cheetahs blindside flank, is rather lacking in first-class game-time after making a belated and slightly tentative entry to Super Rugby 2016 after an injury-related layoff.

Right now fine attack-minded backline prospects like Cheslin Kolbe and Seabelo Senatla are in the midst of SA Olympic Sevens plans – that event begins on Tuesday – and although Coetzee did recall his old Stormers disciple Juan de Jongh straight out of Rio obligations, he clearly felt it might be premature to rush in too many players who are dangerously rusty in XVs terms.

There is also a limit, of course, to the number of outside backs or back-three specialist players you can pick in any squad, and as things stand these remain areas where the significant bulk of Bok-calibre players of colour come from.

Until that situation changes rather more profoundly, it is going to remain a fair old selection challenge for Coetzee in the run-up to the red-letter 2019 rugby year.

Still, both he and SA Rugby as a whole can at least argue that some movement has been made since predecessor Heyneke Meyer could only find room for eight players of colour in his bronze medal-winning RWC 2015 party.

Back then, several of those players controversially got more used to track suits and lugging tackle bags than anything else at the tournament, when match exposure was painfully short-lived for them.

The Boks have slightly bigger “numbers” in serving transformation needs as they contemplate the rigorous demands of the 2016 Rugby Championship.

But how many players of colour wear numbered jerseys rather than blazers on match-days will come under a powerful microscope …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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