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Opinion: Springboks’ Transformation Cannot Happen Artificially

In a country where national identity and issues of race and racial equality constantly permeate everyday life, South Africa’s sporting institutions are a fascinating reflection of the nation’s insecurities.

Successive South African governments have been constantly pushing a ‘transformation’ agenda, or forcing through fundamental changes in the ethnic make-up of Springboks players, Springbok coaches and administrative staff.

Of course, in a country where over 80% of the population is black and just over 8% white, it is only right that work should be done to revolutionise a sport that has been traditionally dominated by white South Africans.

However, the South Africa Rugby Union’s Strategic Transformation Plan, published in February of last year, outlines key percentage targets for the Springboks team, age grade sides and youth players, targets which former head coach of the national side Heyneke Meyer consistently failed to meet.

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - NOVEMBER 03: Heyneke Meyer during the South African national rugby team Homecoming at OR Tambo International Airport on November 03, 2015 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Since then new head coach Allister Coetzee brought in a raft of young black or mixed race players to the squad that faced Ireland in the recent summer series. Lionel Mapoe, JP Pietersen, Elton Jantjes, Tendai Mtawarira and Siya Kolisi started the third test whilst Bongi Mbonambi, Rudy Paige and Lwazi Mvovo were bench players. In order to meet the SARU’s target of 60% Black African representation by December 2019, Coetzee would need to be picking eight players in the 23 every game by December 2016. He is currently just meeting that target.

The objectives are not simply set for the Springboks, they also include the U20s team which needs 40% black representation by the end of this year, U18s matches with 40% representation, Vodacom Cup, Currie Cup, Super Rugby and even provincial amateur matches. The programme also sets clear goals for sevens and women’s teams as well.

There are many vocal supporters of this type of affirmative action, particularly in a nation like South Africa which is still struggling with a coherent way of seeing and envisioning itself 22 years after the end of apartheid. However, rather than concentrating efforts, resources and time on artificially forcing through a huge shift in the ethnic composition of South Africa’s playing pool at the top, all sights should be set on promoting the growth of the game and making it as accessible as possible to all people in South Africa.

According to the SARU’s Pilot Audit of 2014, a total of 7,319 primary schools came under the jurisdiction of the SARU, with a projection of that becoming 7,920 by December 2019. Yet in 2014 only 1,584 of those schools were participating in rugby, or just 21%. Under its target of 2,184 schools playing rugby by 2019, 27% of primary schools in South Africa would be involved in rugby. To assist with this, the SARU is planning to provide direct financial support to the tune of R15 million in 2019, an increase of 55% from 2014.

Similarly, the SARU want to see 1,650 senior schools playing rugby out of a total of 4,650 or 35% of those schools by December 2019, a 3% improvement on the situation in 2014.

However, one has to ask: how much of an impact is aiming to have 7% more of primary schools or 3% more senior schools in the country over five years playing rugby going to have on the numbers of black South Africans becoming professional players at the top end of the game?

This writer completely agrees with former Springbok Stefan Terblanche when he said in an interview with me a few weeks ago:

“South African rugby needs to do more about transformation, but we also need help from government in a big way. We have a lot of talent that we can unearth, but we need to keep them in the country. If we can do that, I honestly believe we won’t lose another Rugby World Cup ever again. However, we need the buy-in from all the stakeholders in South African rugby.”

If the South African government is determined to radically alter the way the population interacts with sport in the country then it has to back that up with significant funding, enough to revolutionise the numbers of schools involved in rugby, the number of young children engaging with the sport and the number of adults becoming coaches.

Transformation is a long-term solution, it cannot be a short-term, instant fix. Setting targets of a specific number of black players to be selected in teams artificially alters the make-up of national and domestic sides, but it also means players are chosen not necessarily by merit but with ethnic background playing an element. That, in turn, leads to disillusionment with players affected by this ‘positive discrimination’ leaving the country to play elsewhere or give up entirely due to limited opportunities.

The less quality players in the system, the poorer the quality of rugby and, therefore, the poorer the quality of the Springboks. It’s happened in other sports in the same situation and it can happen to rugby.

Instead of setting targets for senior teams now, the SARU and the South African government should work hand-in-hand to take the game to the wider population, with far greater numbers of young children and teenagers engaging with the sport as a part of their education.

The transformation then will happen naturally: the player pool will increase, the number of coaches will improve, the engagement with the sport will thrive. No longer will coaches be under pressure to select players based on race but rather the talent will shine through and a genuine meritocracy can be engendered.

The scary thing for other nations across the world is just how much untapped potential there is in terms of playing population in South Africa. In a country with over 55 million people but only a small percentage of that engaging with rugby on a regular basis, what would happen if South Africa woke up to rugby as whole? That would be the best kind of transformation.

Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team. If you would like to join the team, drop us an email at write@punditarena.com.