In the complicated world of South Africa’s push for transformation and racial equality, Simnikiwe Xabanisa reveals that the Springboks success comes from coach Rassie Erasmus making rugby, not colour, the main currency for selection.
A few years ago Steve Hansen ill-advisedly waded into the divisive topic of transforming the Springbok side.
Having no doubt gleaned some insights on the subject from his great mate Heyneke Meyer, the Springboks’ former coach, Hansen was of the view that South Africa was the “only team in sport that doesn’t pick its best team” when interviewed for the book The Jersey: The Secrets Behind the World’s Most Successful Team.
“I understand what they are trying to do,” Sir Steve warmed to his task. “Nelson Mandela understood it better than anyone else. He knew that the Springboks were a team that could unite the nation.
“I still believe it is ... if they got things right and allowed it to develop naturally. Rugby wasn’t a black man’s sport, but it was the sport that would unify the country in a way that no other sport or business could.
“As a nation, it has got such a lively history and it has created a whole lot of things we will never understand because we were never part of it. Heyneke Meyer found out that having to select a team based on what colour a man’s skin is goes against all the principles and spirit of sport.”
As rational as some of the above sounds, it’s a long-winded way of exposing Hansen’s tenuous grasp of the transformation situation in South African rugby, especially when you consider that his reliance on Meyer as his lone source on the discussion meant he never had the full picture.
Given Hansen’s stature in international rugby, merely repeating Meyer’s sentiments, which – when you think about it – suggested that being asked to expand his selection pool from more than just the 10% or so white players he was accustomed to picking from was tantamount to tying his hands behind his back, inadvertently played a part in hindering South Africa’s elusive search for equality in the game.
The vain quest for equality in South African rugby can often be simplistically drilled down to a black and white issue.
But the problems really live in the grey areas, where narrative and perspective hold sway, with the truth almost an afterthought. To get to the bottom of why that may be the case, maybe it’s almost best to look at the concept of equality in SA rugby as a battle for its soul.
Rugby in South Africa – thanks to its white Afrikaansness, overt aggression and being the last sport to be banned internationally – is often seen as the last outpost of Apartheid. This is why the feeling has always been that if rugby can fully integrate itself then the country as a whole is in good shape.
Mandela’s vision was to use it as a tool for reconciliation, while too many of its guardians still take their cue from apartheid’s brief of using it as a weapon for segregation. But the catch has always been how to do that in a sustainable manner.
The 1995 Rugby World Cup win carried with it the novelty of annexing that tournament at the first time of asking, with Mandela’s famous cameo in the celebrations sprinkling rainbow dust on the resultant outbreak of patriotic fervour.
Twelve years later was a vindication of sorts of the country’s rugby status as a powerhouse on the international stage. The victory in Japan in 2019 was a third stab at the hope that has sprung eternal with each World Cup win.
But the goodwill engendered by the World Cup wins in 1995 and 2007 was frittered away as self-interest took over on the part of the game’s custodians, an “us and them” divide developing almost as the open top buses taking in the ticker tape parade receded from view.
Maybe the 12-year gaps between World Cups are a problem: the more the Springboks – whose results can be infuriatingly inconsistent – lose their way between global tournament victories the more time there seems to be for the country’s black and white citizens to turn on each other.
In South Africa it’s permissible to blame a rugby defeat on there being too many black players in the Bok team without having to qualify it, a sentiment that obviously travels, otherwise Hansen wouldn’t be of the belief the country is the only one in the world that doesn’t play its strongest team.
The question to ask is if SA rugby has ever extended itself to be inclusive. It’s one thing for the game’s leadership to say it has opened its doors to all, and quite another for its supposed traditional base to follow suit through their actions.
The 29 years since rugby’s so-called unity are a study in examples of the game treating its black constituents a little like interlopers at times.
Having been content to play two black wingers (and often using inside backs on the wing to achieve it) when the quotas demanded a set number in the early 2000s, the resistance to black players has shifted to influential personnel like first fives and captains.
Sure, Elton Jantjies and Siya Kolisi have made it into those positions, but looking at the rugby public’s constant scrutiny of their form on social media it’s a space in which they constantly have to prove themselves and are only as good as their next game.
The two black coaches who have managed to coach the Springboks, Peter de Villiers and Allister Coetzee, were also not spared the second guessing.
Thanks to a penchant for the kind of outrageous quotes in the media which could easily double up as T-shirts slogans, De Villiers – the only coach to win twice in New Zealand and beat them three times in one year since readmission – was laughed out of town as a lunatic in SA rugby circles.
Usually a record like that gets you a pat on the back at the least, and guarantees you employment after the Boks. But it meant neither, with this writer taking the gloss away from De Villiers’ Dunedin moment in 2008 by writing the win, the first by the Boks in a decade in New Zealand, was achieved playing Jake White rugby.
Having shipped 50 points at home and away against the All Blacks, and losing to Italy for the first time in history, Coetzee’s tenure was always going to be tarred with the disaster brush. But the curious thing about it was when he had the opportunity to install Kolisi as the Boks’ first ever black captain, he didn’t take it.
Coetzee picked Eben Etzebeth instead on the basis of how many national caps he had, despite the fact that at franchise level the lock forward was captained by Kolisi.
The explanation at the time was that Kolisi wasn’t ready, but one couldn’t shake the feeling that black people in rugby had been so used to being shown they didn’t belong in rugby they were starting to visit their own fears on youngsters like the Springbok captain.
Team culture, usually the best way to gauge unity in a squad, has often been revealing for the Boks. Kolisi is on record as saying when he first joined the team under Meyer he felt stupid because he didn’t understand Afrikaans, a language which unofficially seemed to be the first language in the team.
Afrikaans has long been used for lineout calls to prevent the opposition decoding them, but if your own players don’t understand the calls as a result, that is no longer strategic – rather it is exclusive (it didn’t help that it could also be the language of choice in team talks, motivational messages in team rooms, etc).
But SA Rugby director of rugby Rassie Erasmus’ introduction in 2018 has laid the kind of foundation which should go a long way towards dealing with the disparate way in which black and white players are treated by the system.
Starting by installing Kolisi as captain, Erasmus has been ahead of the curve when it comes to dealing with the thorny transformation issue to the point where it is one of the three pillars of their mandate when it comes to the team (the others are performance and developing depth).
Former Springbok assistant coach Matt Proudfoot explained how Erasmus had done it at the time: “Rassie’s been very honest about it. It was Allister who first educated me on the transparency needed when dealing with it. He said every player deserves an opportunity when he’s ready, and Rassie has done the same thing.
“A lot of white coaches need to be honest and not see transformation as something to work around. They need to be honest and do what’s in their hearts because that’s what players respect, there’s no need to hide behind a piece of paper. He’s been honest by judging the players on whether they’re good enough or not.
“That’s what Rassie is doing with the franchises, he wants them to reward the players for working and training hard and not keep saying they’re not ready.”
In a country which can reduce integration into a head-counting exercise, what Erasmus has done is add all walks of life to rugby’s adage that a team is made up of all shapes and sizes.
Makazole Mapimpi and Frans Steyn come from schools not known for producing rugby talent, respectively, yet they worked side by side to win the World Cup; Lukhanyo Am and Malcolm Marx are as different as you can imagine, but being brought up by single mothers means they have a lot more in common than meets the eye, to name but two examples.
And having a man with Kolisi’s backstory as captain is bound to infuse all with the idea that obstacles are just things to be scaled. All these examples combine to make the Springboks accessible to everyone, which is the real point of transformation – not reducing it to a numbers’ game.
The 20 months South Africa chose to sit out following the outbreak of the pandemic makes it difficult to say this with a degree of certainty, but since Erasmus made rugby, and not colour, the main currency for selection to the team, the Boks have been the opponents the All Blacks have always craved.
Long may both things continue.