Political turmoil blights Springboks' preparations
Stephen Nell
May 22, 2007

"England's best chance of beating the Springboks on South African soil in their series will be in Bloemfontein on Saturday." Stephen Nell reports

Although they have been buoyed by a historic first ever Super14 triumph by the Bulls, the South Africans will be vulnerable on three fronts.

Firstly, several of their leading players are battered from an intense final. Even so, the suggestions are that the national selectors want to pick their strongest possible line-up on paper.

Secondly, the Boks have not had much time to train together as a unit. Their cohesion will come from knowing each other's body language from previous encounters.

Perhaps even more significantly is that despite the present success in South African rugby, the political machinations behind the scenes are raging stronger than ever.

It all started when a national training squad of 45 players had to be selected after the Super14 semifinals.

Earlier that week, the first political intervention of the year came when administrators demanded the inclusion of black Sharks wing Odwa Ndungane and Stormers captain and flank, Luke Watson.

The selectors were prepared to make an allowance for Ndungane, but not for Watson.

However, the leadership decided to include Watson against the will of the selectors, including Springbok coach Jake White, who has consistently dismissed the claims of the openside flank.

To add to the intrigue, Watson last year publicly attacked White in a magazine interview.

However, he is a political hot potato, with his father, Cheeky, an anti-apartheid activist and non-racial rugby champion. Cheeky, together with brothers Ronnie, Gavin and Valence, joined black rugby clubs in the Eastern Cape region in 1976 and were victimised by the apartheid government.

At close glance it would seem easy to make the administrators out to be the villains. However, there is a bigger picture in South African rugby, with sport seen as a vehicle for nation-building. The government also has to be satisfied that transformation is becoming a reality and, in truth, rugby's wheels have been turning slowly.

On Sunday, a deal was struck between SA Rugby and Springbok coach Jake White on the Watson-issue.

SA Rugby refused to disclose the details, but according to reliable reports it's that Watson will play one of the next three tests and another in the Tri-Nations.

The agreement is that White thereafter would be able to do as he pleases on the selection front.

Mike Stofile, the deputy president of the South African Rugby Union, was up in arms upon hearing of the so-called deal, though its existence is being denied in public.

International audiences may find all these developments bizarre, but it's just another day in South African rugby.

The question remains to what extent the Boks' lack of cohesion and the political infighting will work against their morale.

White nevertheless seemed happy that a compromise had been reached and is not coming across unduly perturbed.

Still, it's the first week with an expanded Bok squad of 38 together. Top players such as scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, flyhalf Andre Pretorius and centre Jacque Fourie are all out injured. Tough-as-nails loose forward AJ Venter is also away this week to get married and will join up with the Boks ahead of the second test.

If a weakened England side will have a chance, it will surely be in Bloemfontein.

The Springbok squad will more than likely be reduced to 28 next week and will then be a good deal more focused for the test at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria.

It's highly unlikely England will win in Bloemfontein, but it's more than likely their best chance of coming close.

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