Deep down, the further you go into SA Rugby is like uncoiling a knot, and just finding more knots, or peeling an onion – you get the picture.

But moving forward, all the stalling has been due to the previously mentioned political politics and rugby politics. Politics in parliament and politics in rugby boardrooms.

SARU bosses saying the government hasn’t played ball in uplifting communities and providing infrastructure, and government pointing the finger back at SARU for dragging their heels and failing to get their messy house in order. Both are correct but that helps no one, so they both find themselves simultaneously offside in the public eye.

The truth is that the rugby “house” of SA was a mess for the last century. Back in the 1970s, there were 4 rugby associations in South Africa. One of them officiating over the Springboks. So, come 1992 there needed to be an amalgamation of the associations and a dissolving of others. But the one who had the biggest sway was always going to be the one with the biggest pockets (and the allegiance of the major unions).

So from then it was about how wide will the big money men be willing to open their doors to include everyone else? Or how many seats at the table were they willing to avail?

The mindset

A deep mindset shift has perhaps taken place. Historically the Springboks have (partially mis)represented sporting excellence, strength and domination, and way back when, innovation – whilst simultaneously representing racism, elitism, oppression and segregation. In 1995 Madiba laid a different weight on the emblem/brand/symbol… reconciliation.

So the mindset shift that needs to take place within the minds of many, is that the Springboks, as a collective idea, has the capability to shoulder ‘this’. ‘This’ being the weight of all the division and mess of the sporting past. That the collective can pull together and ride it out. And there will be major speed bumps and periods where some reconstruction will be required.

As Steve Hansen said recently of Brodie Retallick’s family tragedy, ‘it puts rugby squarely in its place. It’s just a sport, and there are more important things in life’.

Such sentiments have been echoed by others within SA, like Schalk Burger and Pierre Spies when facing life-threatening illnesses – it put things into perspective. And as a few have said about issues in SA sport and the challenges SARU face, this is about more than rugby. It’s precisely this struggle that’s integral to the Springbok rugby story that adds depth and, excuse the pun, colour to the world game.

Again, the mandate of the Springboks, since 1995, has been reconciliation.

I Digress

I remember my father’s jaw-dropping, whilst we watched the 1995 RWC Final, upon seeing Madiba walk out the tunnel wearing the Springbok jersey, he just shook his head in disbelief saying, “Look at this man hey…”. He’d also said before the game that the Springboks would lose. He had a great admiration for New Zealand and the way they played and approached the game. He just had a love for rugby; for him, and many others, the Springboks and their philosophy (married to the racial element) flew in the face of the ideal.

I grew up listening to tales of legendary heroes. Revered names like Colin Meads, Bryan Williams. Giants of the game, Willie John McBride, JPR Williams, Gareth Edwards and THAT game in 1973. And of course, a special mention to Mr champagne rugby Serge Blanco, always accompanied by whispers of Phillipe Sella. There were even a number of Springboks of course (when you’re good you’re good); Frik Du Preez, Carel Du Plessis, Morne Du Plessis, Divan Serfontein and Danie Gerber. Western Province, despite being under the same racial laws, embraced the flowing game of 15 man rugby.

The great Gareth Edwards in 1974.
PHOTO: Potosport

But even in 1995, my Dad respected and liked Francois Pienaar, as a man and captain, and recognized Ruben Kruger as our MVP. He liked individuals within the team (Chester Williams and Andre Joubert), but could not bring himself to back the team as a whole. Although seeing that same team kneel down in the huddle after the final to pray, went some way in softening him, himself a God fearing missionary and evangelist.

But I digress somewhat; there’s another misconception that needs rectifying in South Africa and in the world’s view of South African rugby.

The all whites

This misconception is that rugby is a ‘white’ sport. I know, I know, we’ve progressed from this mentality, but it’s deep, more than you think you know. Many in and out of SA think it’s about exclusively “taking” the sport to the rural black townships, and that black people only ever played soccer or were only interested in playing soccer, and rugby was mostly a white Afrikaner thing.

The reality is that of the 10 oldest rugby clubs in SA, 4 were black, the oldest being founded in the Eastern Cape. In fact, the two provinces where rugby is played the most in SA is the Western and Eastern Cape respectively.

The histories of white and non-white rugby in SA run parallel to one another. The formation of the South African Coloured Rugby Board in 1896 was reactionary in light of their exclusion from the all-white South African Rugby Board’s formation 7 years earlier. This was preceded by the formation of the Western Province white and coloured rugby boards years earlier.

So the misconception is that the challenge is to take rugby to the impoverished, previously disadvantaged communities and getting the sport played in more schools (inland). That may be part of the challenge, the other side of the coin is to lift up the level/standard of the rich rugby heritage that has existed for over 100 years – and to recognize, acknowledge and accept it. A lot of this, from a historical point of view, is simply about equality – to be seen as equals: Solidarity. This is an issue that (white) South Africans struggle with.

Recent discussions

Recently I was at a wedding and discussing rugby with a man I had just met that day – 30 odd years my senior – and we delved into the issues in SA rugby. He listened intently to see where I was going and then started nodding knowingly as I mentioned rugby in the black and coloured communities has just as old a heritage as in the white communities (yes, due to apartheid, suburban life in SA is still largely divided along racial lines). He then rattled off a few names from the 60s and 70s – like Keith Lentoor, Gerard Peters, Maurice Heemro (inducted as an honorary Springbok in 2001) – that I hadn’t heard of before saying “these great backline players … all these guys would’ve been Springboks, but they were never given the opportunity”.

Last year amidst the disaster of 2016, I went camping with a friend and a few of his mates one weekend – the Boks were playing the Wallabies away – so we live-streamed the game on his tablet. It ended up just being myself and one of my friend’s mates hunched over the small screen in the stone cottage on the farm. We quickly began an in-depth discussion on the remedies of SA rugby.

I was surprised to learn that this white South African man shared my sentiments, going into discussions he’d had with ‘men in the know’ including one with Andy Marinos whilst in a spectator box at Newlands after a game. The topics involved, among other things, the much-maligned Springbok coach Allister Coetzee (as well as the colourful and outspoken Pieter De Villiers), acknowledging that he was actually a good coach. Much of the issues that shroud Springbok rugby at the moment are smoke screens for deeper issues.

Allister Coetzee
Photo by FAR EAST PRESS/AFLO

The common lament: “Just pick the best players – period – regardless of colour or race” – as quoted earlier, is not currently a realistic and wise option, nor is it a sensitive one, whilst the glaring issue that always comes up, is that “the best” is always subjective.

During apartheid, “Springbok colours” were only awarded to white sportsmen and women (across all sports). The then SA government even went on to copyright the Springbok emblem in the early 60s. Non-whites were not eligible for national selection, so the Springbok became a symbol synonymous with White-supremacy in every facet of sport within SA.

As an odd note; In a fantasy parallel universe somewhere, in 1987, if SA were allowed to compete, you may have had 3 or 4 South African teams show up for the event – the ‘official’ white Springboks (under SARB), then the Proteas and the South African Barbarians, whilst there was always the “coloured Springboks”.

For a high-level timeline of some history in SA rugby, check this link out.

Read Part One
here
and Part Two
here
.

Steven Benjamin

Author: Steven Benjamin

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