Johannesburg - Makhenkesi Stofile, the late former minister of sport, found himself in a tight spot 10 years ago when he had to give his blessing to a Springbok World Cup squad whose composition didn’t meet his expectations.
Simply put, Stofile had issues with the number of black players in what would become South Africa’s second World Cup-winning squad.
But he nevertheless gave his congratulations to all the players – begrudgingly – “because they didn’t pick themselves”.
The same issue cropped up in 2011, but the sports minister by then, Fikile Mbalula, was so busy screaming “Moer hulle, Bokke!” at the team’s send-off that he didn’t get around to noticing that 2007 history had just repeated itself.
Then, in 2015, a little-known political party thought it would put its name in lights by approaching the Johannesburg High Court to seize the Bok players’ passports to prevent them from going to the World Cup as they “didn’t represent the whole country”.
The point is, come 2019, you can set your clock to the fact that the same furore with pick up steam again.
The powers that be will tell you it shouldn’t happen again, having given current Springbok coach Allister Coetzee a mandate to deliver a 50% black squad for the World Cup in Japan.
But the question is: Where will Coetzee find those players if none of the Super Rugby or, indeed, the Currie Cup squads, have 50% black representation in their squads?
In the first three rounds of Super Rugby, all but one of the South African franchises steadfastly stuck to the allowable minimum of 30% black representation in their match-day squads of 23.
The Kings were the only team who went above that with nine (or almost 40%) black players in their team to play the Stormers on Saturday.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Lions – who are repeat offenders in the bare minimum stakes – had five black players in their whole squad, which changed to four once Howard Mnisi’s knee injury ruled him out for the rest of the season.
Before this becomes a stats fest, I probably need to echo Coetzee’s sentiments recently by pointing out that transformation is about people and not numbers.
The reason numbers become an important stick with which to beat rugby is because there is a realistic fear that some coaches wouldn’t even pick the 30% if it wasn’t the guideline.
Take the Lions and the Sharks, for instance.
The Lions knew last year already that there were grumblings about the composition of their team, yet there are zero new black faces (Marvin Orie doesn’t count – he’s a Bulls product) promoted to the senior team.
The Sharks were no better.
When looking for a fullback to replace Springbok Willie le Roux, they went to France and bought 34-year-old Clément Poitrenaud, who, even when he was at the peak of his powers, was flaky. Now he’s just slow and unreliable.
When you have Curwin Bosch, Rhyno Smith or even Garth April, why would you invest in an overseas player past his best?
Seeing that this approach is roughly the same as the one that had our teams playing irreconcilable rugby and had the kind of conditioning that was detrimental to the Boks, how about Coetzee calling for a transformation indaba?
It sounds drastic, I know, but we have to admit that, based on the first few weeks of Super Rugby, we have witnessed a change in our six franchises, which came courtesy of everyone meeting under the same roof and discussing the Bok coach’s wishes and expectations.
Presumably, the Bok coach also has expectations regarding how Super Rugby sides can help him transform his team and, if that’s the case, he should meet with the coaches so that they can all thrash out a national approach on a subject that keeps on being treated like an afterthought.
SA Rugby’s policymakers, with their many approaches to transformation in the 25 years since “unity”, continue to miss more than they hit.
So why don’t we leave the transformation to the coaches – like we trusted them to sort out our playing style and conditioning?
After all, it is they who are at the coalface.
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