The Rugby Championship begins this week and the Springbok team has already failed to surmount a significant hurdle. Coach Heyneke Meyer announced a South African team to play Australia in Brisbane with just five black players in the squad of 23. This is directly at odds with the strategic transformation plan of the South African Rugby Union (Saru).
According to the plan, which is available in full as a .pdf on Saru’s website at sarugby.co.za, the principal objective in this World Cup year is to: “Engage [the] national coach to increase black player representation to 30% (seven players in a squad of 23). From the seven generic black players two must be black Africans.” The four-year aim of the plan, which is timeline-based with interim targets, is to “increase black participation in the Springbok team to 50% by 2019”.
With just four games left before the World Cup, time is running out for Saru to “engage” Meyer. On Wednesday, the coach said: “There will most likely be changes for every match this season as we keep one eye on the World Cup.”
Perhaps those changes will be to gradually increase black representation, but the demographics of Meyer’s team for the World XV match last week were exactly the same.
Saru’s strategic plan is not nebulous in any way. It demands the seven-player quota for the Currie Cup this year and even states that: “Southern unions increase black player representation to 35% (eight black players in squad of 23).” By 2019 the target is raised to 50% across all unions and, crucially, in the Springbok team.
Consternation about column on team sheets
This week the annual gathering of the best schoolboy players in the country has been based at Paul Roos Gymnasium in Stellenbosch. The 52nd Craven Week can be expected to unearth a number of future Springboks, but there has been consternation at the inclusion on team sheets of a column marked “Ethnicity”.
Media, Saru employees and referees approached by the Mail & Guardian all expressed concern at an apparent reversion to apparent apartheid concepts. It is, in fact, a simple adherence to rules laid down by the department of sport and recreation, which is intent on creating a database across all sport in this country that can specify demographics and track the movement of participants.
The enduring problem is that players of colour leave the game in large numbers as soon as they finish school. The consequence of this is that, at senior level, provinces have fewer black players to choose from. The problem becomes progressively worse up to and including the Springbok coach.
The unwritten rule at Craven Week is that each province will select a minimum of nine black players in a squad of 22. The department of sport defines black as “black African, coloured and Indian”. Saru’s transformation document states: “Black African is not specifically defined by the department but is generally accepted as meaning a South African of an indigenous African tribe.”
The problem with quotas, even unwritten ones, is that numbers tend to become an automatic ceiling. Of the major unions at Craven Week, only Eastern Province and Western Province exceeded the quota. The Blue Bulls, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and the Lions all selected exactly nine players of colour.
It gives the impression of meetings held behind closed doors to comply with unwanted Saru rules. And even if that is not the case, it speaks to a mind-set that takes little notice of outstanding black schoolboy talent. It is a mind-set that communicates itself all the way up the line to the national side.
Playing a dangerous game
Meyer is playing a dangerous game. Only a few months have passed since the semifinals of the Cricket World Cup were tainted by a South African selection scandal. Despite a lingering injury, Vernon Philander was preferred to Kyle Abbott in the side that lost to New Zealand. Cricket South Africa denied interfering in the selection process, but the balance of probability is that they did.
Unless he wants to have his carefully laid plans disrupted at a similarly crucial stage, Meyer needs to grasp the nettle now. Five out of 23 is simply not good enough, and he has only actually selected eight players of colour in the 31-man touring squad, which hardly leaves options open.
The coach is busy making a rod for his own back with unthinking selections. For instance, Jesse Kriel of the Bulls made his debut against the World XV and will play his first fully sanctioned Test this week against Australia. Kriel is a major talent who deserves his chance, but he has played all season at fullback and was only thrust into the outside centre berth when it became clear exactly how unfit Jacque Fourie was.
By contrast, Lionel Mapoe had an outstanding season for the Lions at outside centre and is black. He was declared fit by Springbok management and should have played at Newlands. He is part of the 31 who have travelled to Brisbane, but did not make the 23 for the game and has in effect gone to hold the tackle bags at training.
The same is true of Bulls prop Trevor Nyakane who, according to Meyer, “performed very well off the bench against the World XV last weekend”, but is not in the 23 this time around. It is well known that both Nyakane and Mapoe have had discipline issues in the past, but that is now irrelevant.
How will the coach know if his black players are good enough if he doesn’t pick them? If Saru’s strategic plan is not to be just another forgotten document, it needs to be implemented now.