South African rugby, much like the nation in many ways, has always been at war with itself, masked by a rugged veil and almost autocratic fraternal institution.

What is real Springbok rugby?

Here’s my look behind the thick green curtain that hides many colours, because there are way too many fans even within the country that don’t have the whole picture, or choose to ignore it.

There are many who have called for the IRB to take action against South Africa for the use of quotas, and they’re not wrong… but then again, they’re not altogether correct either.

So what then should be done?

Is there a solution that works that has long-term benefits for world rugby and the game in SA? What is Springbok rugby? Is it the same thing as South African Rugby? Who really knows?

What’s true is that people enjoy the myth, the legacy which no one can take away. But we don’t live in black and white history books, this is about a black, white and coloured past, where men bled red on grass, mud or gravel because regardless of the pain, the game mattered more. Now it’s the other way around.

In the past, in this country anyway, men played the game for more than love; as Milton ‘Babs’ Roxo (whose playing days were way back in the 1930s & 40s for Wanderers Rugby Club, a black rugby club in Grahamstown) described, that rugby “humanized people’s lives; making life in the townships worth living.

The truth is that to simply say South Africa should pick their best possible team from the players available whether local or abroad, regardless of colour/race (which seems to be the ideal solution and the one most Springbok fans think they want), is not a solution that carries any wisdom at all.

And as (white) SA journalist Liz McGregor pointed out, it is not realistic, “… no, you can’t, the backlog of deprivation … in this country is much too large…

In the midst of a rebuilding phase for our national team slap bang in the middle of the four-year world cup cycle, we find ourselves at an interesting juncture – one we feel we’ve revisited countless times before; as usual, as South Africans, we always tend to do things in our own unique way.

This place we’re at is essentially a confluence of various facets of race, socio-economic divides, historical contexts, political interference (whether necessary or unnecessary, or whether political politics or rugby politics), and then last but not least, the rugby philosophy itself – how things all come together in the green jersey and on the green turf.

The mentality

Recently a Springbok supporter made a very callous statement (perhaps inadvertently). He said that the “REAL” Springbok team has not been selected “ever since quotas were introduced“.

Many people will blindly agree with this. Emphasis on ‘blindly’ because the truth is that for almost 100 years, the Springboks, as the world have come to know them, have strictly been a quota team; a team made up of white players, from a fraction of the country’s population (so that Springbok supporter was correct, but not for the reasons he thought).

Quotas are as old as the Boks themselves.
Photo: Frederic Humbert, via Flickr

What this has done to our mentality is that whenever a non-white player comes into the team, we question whether his selection was merited. Deep down we have this ingrained in us because by the nature of the country’s socio-economic landscape, non-white players have had to work harder just to compete on the same level. There are deeper institutionalised cultural issues here as well that I’ll get into later.

Essentially the playing field in SA has never been level. Wealthy upper-middle-class families send their children to good schools with good facilities and the kids eat (minimum) 3 square meals a day with adequate rest and exercise. Compare that to the average child in a rural and/or impoverished community who has to walk for a few kilometres to school on maybe 1 meal a day, overworked and malnourished, playing on a dirt pitch with no real sports facilities to speak of.

What does this have to do with rugby at the top level?

Well, awhile ago I mentioned to someone that it was like the wealthy minority have a highway to the top level, whilst the majority of others are still on gravel back roads or still waiting for the roads to be built. It means that when raw talent rises to the top, they usually take a little longer to acclimatise.

This is not an excuse, this is the reality the SA rugby landscape is faced with. But the SA rugby public are an impatient bunch, who are accustomed to a player hitting their stride immediately the moment they pull on the green and gold because the test level rugby is not a proving ground and we expect the Boks to be at their best always, and winning, always.

This is because history tells us that when you’re privileged to get the best facilities on offer, you don’t have an excuse not to perform because the playing field is pristine – but that’s only been the case for less than 10% of the population. Despite this, white players, in general, get a larger opportunity to prove themselves – even if they have one or two bad showings, the mentality is to trust in them because they will come good, whereas players of colour get axed the moment they have one bad game, it’s as if we’re expecting, or waiting for them to fail.

There are of course exceptions, the most obvious one being Bryan Habana who could walk into any side in the world.

Habana would walk into any team.
Photo: David Roberts, via Flickr

Transition

The stage we’re at now though, moving through a transition and amalgamating the different facets or pieces of our rugby culture is like trying to fit a jigsaw puzzle together without knowing exactly what the end looks like and where or how some of the pieces fit. But weirdly, some of those pieces first need to be cultivated properly, which means the other established pieces, need to accommodate them.

The traditionalists think they know what Springbok rugby is all about, but by and large, they’re looking at things through a narrow, one-dimensional lens.

they’re looking at things through a narrow, one-dimensional lens

The situation we face (with “quota” Boks) is both an insult and perhaps even an awkward regrettable necessity. The bizarre thing is that if you look at the Springbok Sevens team, you see a transformed (racially integrated) team with no talk of quotas; but why has this not translated to the 15-man game?

Strangely there isn’t nearly as much debate around the sevens team as there is around the 15, which speaks to the traditional mindset since sevens was never very popular on the highveld.

The hugely successful sevens team don’t get asked the same questions.
Photo: saintmalojmgsports, via Flickr

These are the cards we’ve been dealt, thanks to a stubborn SARU (SARFU of old) and their plodding ways, treating any kind of change as a disease, and the bumbling ANC and their sports mismanagement. The fact that the elite schools of this country (Paarl Gym, Bishops, Greys etc), have not accommodated Soccer into their sporting curriculum 20+ years into our democracy is evidence of the failure of the ANC and SAFA, as well as the institutions themselves.

I mention this because these 20-40 schools are the prime talent feeders of our national rugby and cricket teams. It’s what has ensured that there’s always a healthy stream of well-adjusted talent flowing into our junior level sporting codes. It’s this “highway” I was alluding to earlier, a wealth of top institutions with top facilities and good coaching.

Oddly enough

And oddly enough, even with the balance still heavily tilted in the white minority’s favour, if we gather up a collection of only non-white players, we can make up a very competitive national team (the only real problem area being that of world-class non-white locks).

I’m tired of hearing that ‘this is not the real Springboks’, or ‘he was picked because he was the right skin tone’. The reality is that never, (with perhaps 1 exception – the 1st 15 of the 2009 Boks were elite) has the Springbok team that took to the field been the BEST we have had to offer.

A truly great team.
Photo: Stephen Barker/PHOTOSPORT

Beside the fact that every man has his own best team and favourite players, there’s bound to be a number of factors that are taken into account which makes fitting the jigsaw puzzle together all the more complicated, not least of which is form vs experience, as well as combinations and who suits the game plan better etc. In the beginning of his international career, Jean De Villiers played on the wing, for the sole reason that coaches didn’t want to split the pairing of De Wet Barry and Marius Joubert (regardless of their form because they played better as a combo).

How many times in the past have we seen a Springbok team which boasted basically a great group of defenders and a good goal kicker? Whilst you had a group of on form (ethnicity aside) players who were more attacking minded but were left out of the squad altogether. This reveals the difference in the 7 vs 15 man game mentality.

Springbok history is a conservative one – whereas sevens rugby is by nature a game of flair and speed, and has little or no room for conservatism.

Conservatism

The All Blacks, however, have always prided themselves on playing an expansive, attractive brand of rugby whether playing sevens or fifteens. Of course, history has always told us that the Springbok staple is to smother this brand of rugby with aggressive and abrasive physicality and defence, with a focus on set-piece play, mauling and kicking.

The Pro era of the game though has meant that players’ conditioning ensures that each top-tier team can and should be able to compete physically. I read an article in NZ which stated that Dan Carter weighed about the same as a lock in the amateur era, so the emphasis has evolved with the so-called ‘Warrenball’ being a preferred gameplan template, manipulating the opposition defence and moving the slower big men (previous years the “fatties”) to have to defend against the agile and quick men, creating holes in the defence and making line breaks more likely.

It means the game has levelled out over the last 7 years especially, to combat the modern game and rush defence. The All Blacks, of course, have led the way with their line speed and quick hands – moving the ball like no other team can.

I believe that the reason New Zealand still clings onto the respect they have for the Springboks, is not simply because of the rich history, but because they recognise (or hope) what many SA experts and enthusiasts know; the potential in South African Rugby is unprecedented, the talent is there and if we play to our potential, we can (or should) consistently challenge them at the top. As Steve Hansen said recently, “South Africa always produces strong and talented world class players; [with regularity and perhaps greater capacity than other nations]“. So their respect is born out of the past but with the recognition of future potential; we’re just now having to negotiate the awkward middle period of growth and renewal of our minds around the sport. And you can sense it too.

South Africa always produces strong and talented world class players; [with regularity and perhaps greater capacity than other nations]

New Zealand wants a challenger, the game needs it, and there have been a number of pretenders… the old isolation days of the rivalry, with all the politics shrouding every affair, was what elevated the rivalry to near mythical status. However, the remnants and aftermath of all that politics and interference is the root of our current predicament.

The Springbok template is still intact, but half of SA Rugby is about flowing rugby, moving the ball wide, with the talent in the backline to back it up. But the conservative mentality always prevails. What we have is the potential to blend the brute of the forwards with the flair of the backs.

You do not simply wipe away a hundred years of rich history and epic rivalry… and equally, you do not simply wipe away a hundred years of discrimination, hatred and scars either.

Top down approach

We have, for better or worse (currently worse, but not for the reasons you might be thinking of) this thing called quotas. On the surface, it is what it is – a look at skin colour – discrimination. But from the opposite angle, looking deeper to some previously disadvantaged individuals, it’s more like equal opportunity.

The cold fact is that the sporting landscape in SA is not fair; it is heavily biased to the benefit of the white minority, but the ANC is seeking to transform the national team from the top downwards (change the face of the team and hopefully it inspires change of behaviour in the rest of the body – but also the mind of the people), to mask their and SARU’s failure to enact change at ground (heart) level for the last 20 years.

This failure is not just in rugby; why are there so few white soccer players – it’s not for a lack of interest. But the weight falls on rugby partly because it’s South Africa’s most successful national team, and that success hasn’t come easily.

Steven Benjamin

Author: Steven Benjamin

6 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks Steven for bringing this topic to light, it is a very complex aspect of South African Rugby. There are no quick fixes and it is more about generational planning as opposed to a long term plan.
    I think SARU has missed the boat as 20 years is more than enough time to adjust or come up with a plan.

    For me a Country’s success is created from the top down and from the bottom up. So a successful Rugby landscape (all levels of Rugby in South Africa) is created from a strong national team, and a love and skills created with pre teen’s.

    I honestly don’t think Quotas is such a big problem, all it affects is the make up of a team. Any team can perform beyond their individual skill levels. It requires good coaching, excellent support structures, player financial security and decent player management between national and provincial structures (or Super Teams in our case).

    As a Springbok supporter, I have some expectations on the team. I believe with my entire being that we have the players, have the skills to be the best in the World. I think this is the same feeling anyone would have for their national team.
    I may have my opinions on team selection and I have the right to voice them, but ultimately the team is selected by professionals employed to do so. My job is to support my team on the day, complain if they don’t do well and praise when they do.
    So I am disappointed when we don’t do well.

    You are absolutely correct that there are 20-40 schools that feed the current system, most of these schools do cater to more affluent South African’s. These schools have better equipment, better coaching, better support, better players and have a long history. Players that are discovered out of this feeder system have had to work a lot harder with fewer opportunities.

    What drives me crazy is SARU does not have to support these traditional schools, they operate and have success without any influence from SARU. SARU have missed the opportunity to develop the game outside of these traditional structures.

    SARU should set a generational goal of having one million under 18’s playing Rugby by 2040. Also this should be a diverse makeup rich, poor, any colour, boys and girls. Then breaking this down to smaller goals to achieve this very long term goal. Ok one million may be too much but not completely impossible.

    I think there is very limited vision from SARU, but I don’t believe in throwing the baby out with the bath water. We need a strong long term plan and the right people to implement it.

    Thanks again for bringing up this topic.

    • Thanks Donovan, there’s a lot more to come though, this is only part one in the saga…
      I think that there is massive diversity if you look at the SA Schools team for the last 5 years, it’s the transition to the top level that there seems to be a missing link (just looking at racial diversity).
      It’s a good comment that, that SARU have ‘backed’ these schools – would be interesting to get a deeper look at the relationship as it sometimes feels like an old-boys club…

      We only see the racial side of things because its the easiest to spot, but the divisions/fractures are deep… it is transformation of the whole rugby landscape. As you say, a very complex issue.

  2. Thanks Steven. It will take me some time to digest everything you said. I have three comments on the broad strokes of your article though.
    – First on the role of SA rugby history: I do not believe that history is locking SA rugby into an unimaginative style. There is no reason why the national team, with proper coaching, cannot play a different brand of rugby. Many teams in the world are reinventing themselves within 2/3/4 year cycles. Also, there were long periods in our past that we played absolutely beautiful rugby. I’m thinking back to my heroes Gysie Pienaar, Danie Gerber, Gerrie Germishuys, etc. As far as game style is concerned, the past is irrelevant, to put it bluntly.
    – Secondly, the remnants of the old privileged system is not a problem. It is a solution. The number of talented non-European players coming through the elite schools are very encouraging. In fact, these schools are coveting the emerging players from disadvantaged backgrounds. Also, there is a huge pool of coaching and management talent from the previous era that are still serving SA rugby, and they all want the game to grow and succeed.
    – Thirdly, I think you are giving too much weight to the grumblings of Bok supporters. People complain, criticise and accuse. Surely, the conversations during coaching sessions and in SARU meetings are more intelligent. And surely, in this professional age, when the national team falters, it cannot be because some cantankerous public mood is seeping through into the minds of players and coaches.
    So why is SA rugby struggling then? My two cents says that we lack a decisive leader/coach with vision. The soldiers are ready and willing to battle.

    • Thanks Willem,
      Yeah this piece (series) was admittedly with a twofold inspiration – the lack of knowledge (with historical contest) of the global community, and then in reaction to a number of SA supporters – the voices of descent and haters seem to be blaring quite loudly right now.
      I agree, the intelligence and administration is there, and the current run of bad form as we rebuild will inspire more constructive conversations.
      I will go into the emerging talent coming though the elite schools in a later piece.
      In terms of the unimaginative style – I was watching an old video of a Springbok tour to NZ (Danie Craven) – they were a side who played a different brand of expansive rugby (a side who were even innovators). I reference the past to show what is in our rugby DNA… many critics have short memories. I watched a few other videos from the 80s and 90s with truly great passages of play with offloads across the park.. the misconception is that the skill is not there; it is there, it just needs to be cultivated.

      A lot of the article series is to do with the prevailing (generalized) mindset in SA… we’ve lacked unity in many ways, most of all the way we think about the game and its history in the country.
      Thanks for your valuable 2 cents!

      • Hi Steven. Take a look at this article on the current Bok situation: https://www.alloutrugby.com/litmus-failed-time-ceteris-paribus/
        I think it basically concurs with my hunch that if change is going to happen, it needs to happen with the selection of the right coach. Not much else (like rugby structures, quota policy, player drain, public perception) is going to change. The coach is the only variable with which to effect change.

        • Thanks Willem.
          Yah that is for the immediate future – it does seem like we’re in a catch-22 situation 2 yrs out from a WC, and probably need to build toward 2023. The reality is that there are no quick fixes. This is a young side, and we always judge them according to a higher standard (playing against established and settled world class teams)… but a lot can change in a year. I think many teams might peak too soon (perhaps 1 or 2 have already).
          Another thing that has been suggested, is to go the route of the Aussies, in some ways anyway, instead of focusing on immediate success, let’s sacrifice that for long term gain – but it takes patience – something we Saffas struggle with. (There was a very real time when Jake White’s job was on the line too – and he didn’t have the same challenges that AC faces)
          Interesting times…

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