Mhani are called, but few are chosen

The rugby season is over and the foot-shooting season is upon us again. On the field the game in South Africa is stronger than it has ever been. Proof came in Bloemfontein on Saturday when the Free State Cheetahs took two tries on the chin from the Lions, then scored two of their own to win the Currie Cup final 20-18.

It is off the field that we continue to trail the rest of the world.
The president of the South African Rugby Union (Saru), Oregan Hoskins, is a decent man, but the rest of the president’s council seem to have no shame. Every meeting is followed by leaks to favoured publications, many of them so contradictory that it seems impossible the leakers ever sat in the same room together.

Less than a year ago South Africa lost a Test match against England at Twickenham. The following day Rapport carried a front-page story saying that Jake White had been dismissed already and that the new Springbok coach was the Bulls’s Heyneke Meyer.

Eleven months on, in the week leading up to the World Cup final, the Afrikaans press stated that the same Meyer had again been installed as Bok coach. This despite the fact that Saru had advertised White’s position with a closing date for applications set 24 hours before the World Cup final. Meyer, we were told, had been de facto in charge for two months and had been in meaningful discussions with the players to find out which would still be available to him in 2008.

This Monday Saru sent out a press release saying: “Jake White did not apply for the position and he was therefore not considered. SA Rugby recently met with White to discuss the matter and can confirm that White advised SA Rugby that he does not want to make a decision on his coaching future at this point in time. The panel has therefore compiled a shortlist of four candidates and their names will not be released until they have been informed.”

The four candidates have subsequently been disclosed as Allister Coetzee, Pieter de Villiers, Chester Williams and Meyer. Unfortunately for Saru, the devil is in the detail. It would all have been so much easier had White failed in his mission to bring back the Webb Ellis Trophy. But he didn’t and it isn’t. As usual Saru now has to justify the unjustifiable and, as usual, no one is about to accept the responsibility of pulling down the edifice in the name of transformation.

Even Hoskins came out fighting when White announced on Wednesday that he would quit as coach after the two-Test tour to Britain later this month. Hoskins said: “Jake was seen as someone who was never prepared to give the whole story and relied on public sentiment after the World Cup to support his cause as a martyr. The unfortunate thing is that Jake is now portrayed as the victim and the council as a bunch of idiots who just did not like him after we won the World Cup.

But that’s just not fair and it’s not the whole story as there are a lot of people in SA Rugby who stood by Jake and supported him during some of his darkest moments in the job.”

It is true that White was adept at manipulating public sentiment via the media. It is also true that he had a barely disguised contempt for his employers, but experience taught him to ignore them and get on with the job of coaching the Springboks.

Ironically, the governing body actually had the chance to nip all this in the bud four years ago and there is a disturbing amount of déjà vu about how they cocked it up. They announced a shortlist of four names to fill the vacancy left by Rudolf Straeuli. The names were Chester Williams, Heyneke Meyer, Dumisani Mhani and Andre Markgraaff. Markgraaff withdrew early on and, due to a procedural error, White’s name was added. The rest is history.

What might have happened if, instead of White, Mhani had been given the job? It’s worth pondering because, four years down the line, nothing has changed. There are still not enough black players on the field and way too few in coaching positions at provincial level. Mhani, then the coach of the Border Bulldogs, would have received the job in the perfect position. With Springbok rugby at its lowest ebb the pressure to produce results was off.

Nothing has changed, except that South African rugby is no longer in the gutter, but looking down from the stars. There’s no pressure to perform this time because the Springboks are world champions. Like England, they can cock it up for the next four years and, as long as they are competitive in 2011, no one will mind.

So how come Saru has compiled a shortlist that doesn’t contain a black African name? Or is the reason they would not confirm the names on the list because they were desperately looking for a Mhani for 2007? It might make a perfect slogan for the slow pace of transformation in rugby: Mhani are called, but few are chosen.

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