Tutu is right: Rugby has a race problem

Last week Desmond Tutu peered over the parapet into the no-man’s-land of race relations in South Africa, and commented that Springbok rugby lacks black representation.

The predictable ensued: a howl of indignation that discussion of skin colour has no place in sport.

Although Tutu insisted he was not in favour of quotas, a storm of white South Africans on the online commentary boards treated him as though he was proposing a full squad of black African players for the Springboks.

This is a pity, because had Tutu been understood properly, South African rugby, from the fans to the coach, may have learned something.

Tutu’s primary point was that it seemed unfair to him that players such as Trevor Nyakane and Teboho Mohoje were given positions on the bench in earlier matches this year, only to lose them for the sake of veteran players, dubiously drafted in from their overseas clubs.

After these players (among them Juan Smith, Gurthrö Steenkamp and Bakkies Botha) performed well below par against the 12th-ranked side in the world last Saturday in Argentina, perhaps Tutu’s views should be given more credence from a rugby perspective.

The fact that Tutu, clearly a rugby fan and no mere rabble-rouser, was roundly condemned is indicative of a strange atmosphere that has surrounded the Boks since Heyneke Meyer took the reins from Peter de Villiers in early 2012.

In short, despite failing to beat New Zealand home or away, some questionable performances against Argentina and Australia, and a series of dour selections and performances that underplay our country’s rugby talent, Meyer seems to be exempt from the vitriol that was constantly spewed at his predecessor.

Consider that under De Villiers the Boks beat the All Blacks fairly regularly, defeated a very strong British and Irish Lions side, and were only denied a fair shot at World Cup victory by what critics hail as World Cup rugby’s worst-ever refereeing performance.

Yet for sections of the media, De Villiers could never be anything but a villain.

Somebody even conjured up a malicious and baseless story of a De Villiers sex tape to taint his name. Even after that, there was no sympathy for a man who had consistently shown success in his coaching career – not even a South African Rugby Union inquiry into the defamation of its leading employee at the time.

Yet Heyneke Meyer has not suffered from any of this. Admittedly, Meyer has scored a higher winning percentage than De Villiers (he has been more consistent in matches against European opponents), but it is fairly obvious to most observers that the Bok side is going backwards.

Ever more reliant on players based abroad, Meyer’s strategy has been simple: pick the largest, most experienced players and hope for the best. One-off runners; aimless, deep, incontestable kicking; constant lineout mauling – these have become the hallmark of the Bok game.

But a game plan that relies on brute force comes unstuck when matched by a team that has no physical fear of us – such as New Zealand or Argentina.

Yet for all this, most rugby journalists entertain the idea of an extension of Meyer’s contract for another four years. Furthermore, they let him get away with the obviously false proposition that he has built a new team from the ground up since the De Villiers era.

De Villiers was constantly criticised that his team, a large component of which had won a World Cup just before he took over, was underperforming relative to their merits. This critique largely ignored that the World Cup-winning side had not beaten New Zealand for over three years.

Straight faces
Yet when Meyer consistently selects teams with players who made their debut before the Jake White era, he and captain Jean de Villiers still manage to insist with straight faces that Bok rugby has been rebuilding.

The obvious exception to this criticism has been Meyer’s nurturing of our new star fullback, Willie le Roux. When Le Roux was first selected, he was a raw, unpredictable talent. Under Meyer’s tutelage, Le Roux has grown into a new André Joubert.

But imagine Le Roux had been a Xhosa-speaking player from Queens, instead of an Afrikaner from the Free State. In the light of his attacking talent, would his diminutive stature have been given a free pass? Would his weak tackling have been ignored?

Unfortunately, the answers to such questions are not obvious – and this is Tutu’s point.

Afrikaner players like centre JJ Engelbrecht and prop Coenie Oosthuizen were given a few years to prove themselves in the side (while underperforming noticeably), whereas one dropped kick-off from Lwazi Mvovo in the 2012 Rugby Championship cost him his place in the squad for over a year.

Something similar seems to have happened to the Bok-contracted Siya Kolisi, who now finds himself out in the cold after a lukewarm season in Super Rugby, despite his fine performances in Bok colours in 2013.

Look, think and speak like the coach
I doubt there is much intentional, conscious racism in the Bok squad – rather, I suspect it is a matter of too easy a comfort level with a single type of culture, a single type of player.

Yet to dismiss Tutu’s concerns glibly would belie that there is something problematic in our rugby: a residual bias towards players who look, think and speak like the coach.

Perhaps the source of the problem lies in Meyer’s almost manic desire to avoid losing, as evidenced by his outbursts in the coach’s box.

It is a truism in sport that the fear of losing is a sure way to lose. It seems that this same fear is turning the Boks into an old boys’ club made up of the same faces, the same language, the same safe but tired game plan.

If this is the case, transformation may not simply be politically expedient; it may be our only way back to world dominance.

Chris Waldburger is a freelance journalist

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