Race debate awaits World Cup heroes

They may be the world champions, but the Springboks have few illusions that their new status will stave off a new push by the government to overhaul the team’s racial composition.

Even before their arrival back home, politicians have mixed their words of praise with a warning that they expect the World Cup final victory to act as a springboard to genuine racial transformation in a team that featured just two coloured players in Saturday’s starting line-up.

Sports and Recreation Minister Makhenkesi Stofile said the Boks squandered the opportunity after their first title triumph in 1995 to make the game truly representative of the country’s racial mix and a repeat failure would be unacceptable.

“This victory should herald a new era—an era in which we all embrace change and tackle the challenges still being faced by our rugby and sport in general,” said Stofile. “Our victory during the 1995 World Cup offered us a window to see what South Africa can be. We did not build on that.
May we not commit the same error after this second chance.”

The debate about so-called racial quotas has been raging ever since 1995. The national rugby team has made considerably less progress towards what the government calls transformation than cricket, while Super 14 teams rarely feature more than four players of colour.

At one stage, the head of Parliament’s sports committee even suggested the Boks’ passports be impounded unless they became more representative.

Although the government bit its lip during the tournament, it would not have gone unnoticed by President Thabo Mbeki as he shook the hands of the winners and losers that England had as many players of colour as South Africa, a nation with an 85% black population.

Before flying to Paris, Mbeki said comments by skipper John Smit on the team’s role in forging national reconciliation were only a start.

“We would be greatly mistaken if we took this immensely positive development as signifying that the rugby administrators, the players and the nation have accomplished the shared goal of building rugby as a non-racial sport at all levels, on a sustainable basis,” he wrote in his weekly newsletter.

‘Unspoken motivation’

Coach Jake White, who is set to step down, said the prospect of renewed political pressure had been “a huge unspoken motivation for [his players]—to show that they deserve to keep their team”.

Nick Mallett, the former Springboks coach who is taking charge of the Italians, said the best way to encourage more black players to take up the game is by having a successful national side rather than forcing the process. “The more people who see a successful team, the more people from all cultures will want to play rugby,” he said.

Helen Zille, leader of the Democratic Alliance, said the government should limit itself to a “facilitative role”.

“Instead of imposing race quotas in rugby, government should be nurturing young black talent by creating opportunities through bursaries, talent-scouting and better training and facilities,” she said.

The few rugby clubs in black townships often lack the kit and equipment that counterparts in wealthy white suburbs take for granted.

But with all eyes on raising standards in soccer ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, rugby is not a priority.

“They [politicians] stand on their soapboxes and whinge because rugby is an easy target,” wrote Clinton van der Berg in the Sunday Times. “But they don’t develop fields in townships, underwrite coaching classes or supply the nutrition needed to turn 75kg weaklings into 115kg tighthead props.”

However, writing in Friday’s Mail & Guardian, Chris Waldberger said rugby had been too focused on sidestepping transformation.

“The thinking seems to be that as long as the Springboks are successful, politics can be kept on the periphery as an awkward sideshow. But this only goes to show that the intent and heart of transformation has been lost.”

Habana the champion

Meanwhile, Springbok wing Bryan Habana was on Sunday named the International Rugby Board player of the year, the day after helping the Springboks clinch the World Cup title.

Habana (24) scored eight tries to finish as the tournament’s top scorer, equalling the record set by New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu at the 1999 edition.

Jake White was named coach of the year and the Springboks also won team of the year after going unbeaten in the tournament in which they clinched victory with a 15-6 win over England in the final.

The title caps a golden year for Habana, who also won the Super 14 championship title with the Blue Bulls. He succeeds previous winners Richie McCaw (2006) and Dan Carter (2005) of New Zealand.

France’s Yannick Jauzion, Argentinian duo Juan Martin Hernandez and Felipe Contepomi and McCaw had been among the nominees selected by a jury made up of former internationals.—Sapa-AFP

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