The coach, SARU and the government … they’re all up to crap

THERE’S one thing that every rugby fan can look forward to when Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer names the squad that he will be taking with him to the World Cup in September: a long, angry debate about the lack of ‘transformation’ in the side.

In fact, a barrage of words in this regard has already been fired by fans on Facebook.

A few months ago, the brains-trust of the South African Rugby Union (SARU) reiterated a past promise that every Bok squad of 23 would include at least seven black players, of which two would (in uniquely South African parlance) be ‘black African’. And, in terms of yet another strategic transformation plan, courtesy of the game’s well-ensconced officialdom, SARU also stated that half of the 30-man squad that will play in the 2019 World Cup would be black, of which 9 would be ‘black African’.

Every few years, SARU dishes out smelly parcels of transformation bullshit – and this, predictably, shaped up as yet another such occasion.

As the 2015 tournament draws closer, the naïve among South Africa’s rugby fans will no doubt be entranced by some impressive demonstrations of numbers manipulation. With the small matter of a now insignificant Four Nations tournament to be played before the World Cup, I fully expect the target of seven blacks in the Bok team for matches against Australia, New Zealand and Argentina to be met – and even surpassed.

And I am certain that more than the usual number of black faces will be included in one or more of the run-on teams for these matches. Over the years, our country’s black sportsmen and women have become used to having a few breadcrumbs dropped under the table for them to nibble on. Mark my words, though: meaningless Four Nations matches will be the sop for rugby players from black communities, for not making it into the squad that every top player dreams of being a part of.

Of course, the World Cup will be for the real manne – the white manne, even if some of them are halfway into their thirties, and even if others have been begged by Meyer to arrange for thoughts of sedate, but lucrative, careers in rugby-retirement countries such as Japan to be put on hold for a month or so, for the chance of another push for World Cup glory….

Let’s be quite clear about this: the Springbok team that runs out for its first World Cup match on 18 September, or a few days later, will have a familiar look about it: black representation will be confined to two wings and a prop.

This will be rugby’s sorry contribution over more than 20 years, to developing the game in all South Africa’s communities.

Sowing seeds of failure
It’s easy to compile reasons for SARU falling short of its commitments to the black rugby-playing communities of this country – simply because they’ve all been heard before. Many of these have been recorded, memorized, agonized over, and lied about since the early 1990s.

Some of us can rattle these promises off by heart….

Raced-based thinking at age-group, provincial and Super Rugby level is one reason that has been trotted out from time to time. The fact that the majority of white coaches, especially in a country such as South Africa, will always be more comfortable choosing white players (because white players, in their opinion, are better) is another.

Nor has the embarrassing shortage of black coaches at the highest levels of the game been satisfactorily explained by SARU, although it would not be difficult for most people to guess why. And how about this newer one? The conviction, (enthusiastically) supported and promoted by pockets of coaches, ex-players and white rugby journalists, that ‘big’ among backline players is always better.

This has never been proved, certainly not in South Africa. But it is, of course, well known, that the big backline players in this country are almost always white.

I’ve never been a Meyer fan. I love to see a little adventure in the rugby I watch – and I know I’ll never get it from any of the teams that he coaches. There’s no way in hell that he’ll devise a selection policy to win the coming World Cup, while looking even further ahead to the 2019 tournament, by identifying and choosing at least some of the black players who could become stalwarts of a run-on team that will comprise 50 percent black players.

His determination to persuade tired old white bones to play for him in this year’s World Cup is a clear indication of what he thinks of that idea. And yet, having said this, if I were to take aim with my cultured left foot at anyone’s backside, it wouldn’t be at his….

To steal, and then to adapt a line from an old Elton John song, Meyer is only the piano player of national rugby. So, no, I wouldn’t kick him. Or, if I did, it wouldn’t be too hard.

If I were to do any kicking of a serious kind, my targets would be SARU and the South African government.

We can argue until we’re blue in the face about the credentials of this or that black player to be included in the World Cup squad, but there is one thing that should never be forgotten and, perhaps, forgiven: SARU and the government have failed players from predominantly black and under-privileged and under-resourced communities….

Too little – always
What has SARU done over the years to create structures, real structures, that will provide every black boy in South Africa who loves rugby, who wants to play the game, and who has potential, with the opportunity to reach the highest level he is capable of?

The answer, sadly, is … far, far too little.

SARU’s best-known intervention has been its support of various rugby bursary schemes aimed at identifying and then enrolling our most talented schoolboys at the country’s top rugby-playing schools.

At first glance, this might seem like a good idea….

But it has been an intervention, which like so many other SARU interventions, is really a sop. It just doesn’t go far enough. All it has done is create a far-too-narrow funnel of opportunity for a small percentage of talented players.

I see it as a form of Influx Control for black schoolboy rugby players….

Whether inadvertently or not, it has turned rugby into an elitist sport for far too many black rugby-playing schoolboys. Only a small percentage will ever make it to SACS, Paarl Boys High or Wynberg Boys High. What about the late bloomers? What about rugby development in township schools, at both primary and high school level? In fact, there are too many ‘what-abouts’ to mention.

SARU should be committed to promoting rugby in every township school and in every township club – in every part of the country. In many instances, rugby structures (if there are any) in townships are just about hanging on (if that).

SARU officials will probably argue that the number of black players who are selected for age-group sides, is proof that its development programmes are working. But then this question arises: Why do the bulk of these black players ‘disappear’ between, say, Under-21 and Currie Cup and Super Rugby level? Has SARU ever commissioned research on this matter – and if so, what were the conclusions?

Challenging the government
And yet, I can see what SARU’s problem is. It is finding out – in the most painful way possible – that it is, as the old South African Council on Sport used to argue, impossible to play normal sport in an abnormal society, Many black youngsters who attend top rugby-playing schools on bursaries, will acknowledge how difficult (if not impossible) it is to compete, train or play with their white counterparts as equals.

There are big differences between living in Lavender Hill and Llandudno – and grassy verges and sea air are the smallest of these. Youngsters from poor areas have to contend with issues, ranging from physiological and psychological development, to diet, to racism, and to crime (among others). This MUST impact on their ability to play sport on an equal basis with youngsters from rich areas. And it DOES.

Obviously, SARU cannot resolve most of the sociological challenges it faces, on its own. In fact, it shouldn’t even be expected to. And yet, virtually every year its officials set off on a pilgrimage to Parliament to report to the Sports Portfolio Committee about what it has been doing to promote transformation.

Surely, they, and the parliamentarians they report to, must know these meetings are a sham – a complete waste of time … and a study in hypocrisy. There are some things that SARU will never be able to do – and they know it. And they know who should be taking responsibility for these issues….

That’s right … the very people they regularly report to: the government.

In a society less perplexing than ours, it should be a SARU summoning national ministers in key portfolios to one of ITS meetings – and demanding action to be taken about the lack of housing for people in the country’s poorest communities … about rampant crime in the townships … about the lack of proper recreational facilities … about unemployment … about the lack of decent education facilities.

These are some of the issues that slow down the pace of transformation in sport.

But this SARU, our SARU, doesn’t have the guts to tell the government where to get off, and about what the majority of its members need. And that is why it has been prepared to collaborate in this ongoing game of report-back meetings that achieve nothing – and in PR dross, such as calls to wear Springbok jerseys on Fridays during the World Cup.