Opening Pandora's box
There probably isn’t an issue in SA Rugby as divisive and emotional as when it comes to talking about transformation.
It’s a Pandora’s Box of emotion, where most will only wear kid gloves while wading into the morass of arguments about player and team selections, compositions and numbers.
But after being reminded again this week what a ticking time bomb we’re sitting on in South African sport, I have to ask: Are we not failing black rugby players and the broader support base across the country by not addressing some of the real issues surrounding transformation in our sport?
Before you get hot under the collar, take a moment to think about this. Take a moment to think about the vast untapped talent we have in this country.
This isn’t a column about Heyneke Meyer’s choices for the Springbok team. Nor Gwede Mantashe’s responses to these choices.
This is a 'bigger picture' article.
I was in the offices the other day venting my anger about the EP Kings’ inability to find one black player for their starting line-up against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, ready to write an emotional column about how the Kings are misusing their mandate when a black colleague of mine reminded me quite frankly: “If you go after the Kings, you have to go after everybody.”
Quite frankly, he is right. It isn’t just the Kings, or the Boks who are failing SA Rugby today, or tomorrow. It is a broader system; a broader base of doing things that has failed SA Rugby today, and has mounted the anger among our fellow South Africans that is slowly reaching boiling point.
I always feel for the national coach, whoever he is. Not only does he have an unbelievable weight of expectations on his shoulders, but he also has to keep everyone happy. The fear of losing often trumps his plans, his hopes and aspirations, and whenever he chooses a preference for a player, you can damn well be sure he will get lambasted for it.
When it comes to transformation, to me the problem is not so much at Bok level but lower down.
Over the past few years I have seen the most wonderful talent break through from Craven Week to junior ranks. Our under-19 and under-21 teams are filled with stars that make other nations envious. We have a wealth of black talent that can both sustain itself and often be the most valuable players in the team.
But then the system fails them. While we will always have the bolters – the Raymond Rhules, Bryan Habanas and others of this world – it is a fact that most other players take longer to develop. Once these players hit the ceiling after under-21 level, we lose them en masse.
Often what happens is they disappear into senior ranks, blocked by a more experienced player, bound by contract and paid handsomely even when they do not play. Go to any of the big four unions, and in a Currie Cup season you will find close to 20 players who are holding tackling bags.
Many of these players were incredible junior talent, but can’t break into the senior ranks. They simply bide their time hoping for an opportunity, which seldom comes. Take Sibusiso Sithole and Sampie Mastriet for instance - both are stunning talents who should have been regulars in the Currie Cup set-up this year. Both played one or maybe two games for their provinces in a season where we should have seen them more.
Both players can argue their development as top sportsmen was halted, hindered by their absence on the field, and they could have been better players right now.
Part of the problem is pressure, and coaches often don’t want to take a chance on talent if they aren’t sure of the outcome. If you think this happens just with white players, believe me I’ve seen it happen twice as much to good black talent.
We have conservatism in our rugby that is hard to shake. But we also have to be wary of the realities of our country.
Last year the Sports Indaba recommended going back to Quotas for sporting federations. I personally wouldn’t like to see that happening, but can understand the frustration of some people.
South Africans need heroes. We need talented players to fulfil their potential across the board and to be lifted up across all colour lines. Say what we will, up to now, rugby across the board has simply been paying lip-service.
This is not about the amounts of money spent, or academies created, it is about giving opportunities to those worthy of it.
So my plea to South African coaches across the board is to take that chance and to fans to be patient.
We certainly cannot say we’ve succeeded in transforming the sport in this country if only a handful of Bok candidates are available for selection.
We’ll always disagree on individual selections for the national team. But in the bigger picture, we need to broaden the base of top class provincial and Super Rugby players that can take the step up to international rugby.
This is where rugby is failing in South Africa.
Until the Bok coach has 50 black players to choose from in Super Rugby, and not 10 we will never say we are transformed as a sport.
That is the real battleground. That is where rugby can win hearts and minds. Some will make it and some won’t, but if we can reach that ideal goal, we can forgo some of the uncomfortable conversations we hate having in this sport in South Africa.