No favours needed - just a sporting chance
John Taylor
June 19, 2007

"Just when South African rugby is getting its act together on the field politics is once again threatening to wreck everything." John Taylor reports

The Springboks are beginning to look like the one team that could mount a serious challenge to New Zealand in the World Cup (we shall know a lot more after Saturday's Tri-Nations match in Durban) but the meddling hands of the politicians could yet prevent that happening.

Last week SARU was hauled before the parliamentary sports committee because, for them, the pace of change - i.e. the increase in the numbers of non-white players in the national team - is not happening fast enough.

The chairman, Bantu Holomisa even came up with the frightening suggestion that it might be necessary to impound passports to help get the racial mix right - I thought all that disappeared with the end of the apartheid era.

And what makes this unsporting and unnecessary intervention nonsensical is that it is out of touch with the wishes of the non-white rugby players, coaches and most of the officials from Eastern Province which was always the hotbed of non-white rugby in the apartheid years.

Sadly, it is dividing former friends from the old South African Rugby Union, the one governing body that stayed resolutely multi-racial despite apartheid. Some of them are furious at the way things are being manipulated.

Here I have to confess an interest. I am patron of a remarkable rugby club in the Helenvale township in the northern suburbs of Port Elizabeth.

With wonderful irony they call themselves the All Blacks (they even do the Haka) and they have been nurturing talent from some of the worst slums for the best part of 20 years. Now they are top of their league and set to break into the Eastern Province Super League.

'We don't need to go the quota route.....the talent is there..... we must always select the very best team at the top level,' says Malcolm Klassen, one of the keenest rugby men you would ever wish to meet and a driving force in the club.

What makes the old SARU veterans really angry is what they consider selective intervention by the new SARU - now the overall governing body.

They have insisted on the inclusion of the very white Luke Watson, a former South African U21s captain, in the national squad. Many believe he is only there for political reasons

You have to feel sorry for Watson, a talented young player caught in a crossfire he could not escape. He is the son of Cheeky Watson who, with his brother Valance, made a determined stand against apartheid and defied the authorities by playing for Spring Rose, a township club, back in the 1970s.

Cheeky would almost certainly have been a Springbok if he had played in the whites only mainstream competitions and some politicians have even advocated Luke should be considered 'previously disadvantaged' because of his father's contribution to the cause all those years ago. Cheeky is an old friend in a difficult situation but I am surprised he has not spoken out to oppose such muddled thinking.

Current Springbok team manager, Zola Yeye, was Cheeky's captain at Spring Rose and ex-colleagues believe this is the reason for Luke's special treatment. It worries them and they are calling for the same sort of intervention on behalf of the dynamic Kabamba Floors (also from the Eastern Cape) who, they believe, is ahead of Watson - if pushed they will also admit Danie Rossouw is ahead of both.

Everybody I have spoken to, whatever their colour, believes the all-white combination of Juan Smith, Schalk Burger and Pierre Spies is the best and must be selected but that, seemingly, counts for nothing in the corridors of power.

The boys from P.E. (even they don't call it Mandela Metropole) are not backwards in championing their own but they know their rugby and believe that only Bryan Habana, Conrad Jantjes, Ricky Januarie , Gurthro Steenkamp and Hamyane Shimange could be challenging for starting places with half a dozen others deserving places in the squad. They are quick to condemn the rumoured edict that any Springbok side will have to field 10 players of colour next year.

Interestingly, they would not play Ashwin Willemse because 'he has not yet recovered his form' Solly Tyibilika because 'he is not fit enough' and Akona Ndungane because 'he is not strong enough.'

They do not believe in immediate representation without merit, instead they want the chance to develop so that they can genuinely compete and the All Blacks (the Helenvale version) have a plan.

They play at Gelvandale High School, the only school in the P.E. townships to have hostel accommodation attached. About 180 pupils board at the hostel and since a derelict wing has been refurbished there is room for another 50-60.

If a joint community/education project is approved they want to turn this fourth wing into a sports academy with schooling, gymnasium facilities, coaching and a proper diet all available on site.

'That is what the privileged white schools give their pupils,' says Klassen, 'and that is where most of the current Springboks come from. If we could offer the same - even in a fairly primitive form - we would soon be producing top players, no favours, no special treatment.'

At the very top level White, who has been treading on egg shells ever since he took over as coach, must be allowed to pick his strongest team.

The work to bring through underprivileged players must be stepped up at the lower levels. The provinces and the Super 14 franchises should all have properly funded academies so that initiatives like the one that will hopefully start in Helenvale next year will not be another wasted opportunity.

No favours, no special treatment - just a sporting chance.

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