Why are the Boks so white?
Gwede Mantashe was right to say black rugby players are not given the support to perform on the field in the starting 15, writes Lloyd Gedye.
White people and affirmative action. It seems so simple, yet so many white South Africans are still grappling with it.
A case in point was when ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe last week made certain comments about the number of black players in the Springbok team.
Mantashe was recently quoted in a Sapa news story as saying that there were several black rugby players good enough to play internationally and they should be selected for the team by Bok coach Heyneke Meyer.
The context of the comments was the conclusion of the South African Rugby Union's transformation indaba last week.
One has to ask the question: Why did it take Saru 20 years to launch such an initiative? After all, the Springboks have been back in international rugby since 1992.
But getting back to Mantashe's comments, they naturally caused a public outcry from white South Africans across the country as they scrambled to accuse the ANC leader of being racist.
A quick scan through the comments under the story, which was run on the SuperSport website, provided ample evidence of the vitriol that followed.
"Make everything black, let's paint the field black and the ball too and let's not allow whites to attend the sport, I swear this country can pull anything into a race war, what does it matter what color the players is, watch the sport and support the country," said one ignoramus.
"Why are there so many black players and no white players in Bafana?" cried another, with what has become an all too regular response of white South Africans who cannot accept the need for affirmative action in sport.
But what infuriates me the most is that the players whom Mantashe wants to be selected, such as Lwazi Mvovo, Siya Kolisi, Elton Jantjies and others whose names have been mentioned, such as Gio Aplon and Juan de Jongh, are all in the running for a Springbok berth on merit.
They are great rugby players who have excelled at different times for both their provincial teams and the Springboks.
These are not quota players; they are fully fledged Springboks who have earned their place among the elite of South African rugby.
So let's crunch some numbers.
Of the Springbok squad of 31 players picked for the November tour of the northern hemisphere, 10 are classified as black. That is almost a third of the squad. However, of these 10, only three were selected for the Springboks' first Test against Ireland last weekend, thus comprising 20% of the team.
These were JP Pietersen (45 caps), Tendai Mtawarira (41 caps) and Zane Kirchner (21 caps), although Mtawarira had to pull out because of an injury.
All these players are established Springboks who have represented the team for many years.
On the bench last weekend were De Jongh (12 caps) and Mvovo (seven caps). So, out of the match-day squad of 23, only five of the players were black, which is 21%, a significant drop from the ratios in the squad.
What can we read into this? Are these players being selected to increase the representation of black players in the squad? That is hardly likely – every single one of them has had a very impressive season and deserves their spot.
The problem is that black players are being selected for the squad but are not being empowered to play a role in the starting 15, which is exactly the point that Mantashe was making.
Is Francois Hougaard significantly better than Mvovo to warrant his selection? I think not. Is Jantjies a better flyhalf than Patrick Lambie, as Mantashe suggests? In my opinion Lambie is the best flyhalf option we have at the moment for the Springboks.
Selected for the bench
But I am a Sharks fan, so I am probably biased and have to admit that Jantjies is pushing him pretty close.
Was Jantjies in the match-day squad? Not a chance.
Lambie was the starting flyhalf and Morné Steyn, who has been in abysmal form, was selected for the bench.
Chilliboy Ralepelle is another great case study. For years the talented hooker was behind both former Springbok captain John Smit and the incumbent, Bismark du Plessis.
His talent as a leader of the junior Springboks was identified early, but many felt he was unlucky to be competing against two of the best hookers in the world.
Now that Smit has retired and Du Plessis is injured, does he get his shot at making the Springbok hooker position his own?
No, we get two more white players in Adriaan Strauss and Schalk Brits moving ahead of him in the pecking order. What a wasted opportunity.
Ralepelle could have proceeded to have a lengthy Springbok career, become a black rugby role model and even a future captain of the Springboks. Imagine a black captain of the Springboks!
But instead he looks destined to sit out his career on the bench, having 21 caps mostly from his position as a substitute.
South African rugby has not backed Ralepelle to deliver and has wasted a huge black rugby talent. It's a disgrace.
Black players are not being backed by the coaching team to deliver on the day, so how can we expect real transformation in Springbok rugby?
However, the responsibility for this cannot lie solely with Meyer and his coaching team; ultimately, Saru has to accept the responsibility.
The longer this status quo continues, the more disenchanted I – and, I am guessing, many other Springbok rugby fans too – am becoming.
I just hope that someone wakes up and smells the coffee before it's too late – before avid Springbok supporters like me walk away from the team because it is not representative of the country we live in.
For this reason I applaud Mantashe's comments. Someone had to point out these failings of South African rugby.