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Diversity within SA rugby

Stephen Kisbey-Green

South African rugby has come under the pump in recent weeks, after some dreadful performances in the Rugby Championship. And although our recent loss against New Zealand weighs heavily, one cannot forget the heavy criticism of Sport Minister Fikile Mbalula’s announcement earlier this year, stating the Springboks would not be permitted to compete in international tournaments from 2017 if his quota targets of 50% black players is not met.

This has caused many South African rugby supporters to turn away from their beloved ‘Boks’. The South African community has complained for years “players should be picked on merit”, and “the quota players will ruin South African rugby”. With the recent string of results, many fans would think their predictions of the “quota era” were correct. They would in fact be wrong.

The recent string of disappointing results is in part due to the Springbok head coach’s inability to breed young players into the Bok setup, in the lead up to the mass retirement of mainstay Boks in 2013-2014. For a decade, the core of the Springbok team revolved around several talented individuals, including John Smit, Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger, and Bakkies Botha among others, and no plan or development program was set up for when these players retired.

This lack of development of young players has caused the gap between South African and New Zealand (World no. 1) rugby to steadily increase. It is also this lack of development of young talent has prevented young black players from being selected for the national side on merit, as they have not been properly groomed to take over the reins. No-where is this poor handling of black talent more obvious than in the Eastern Cape.

The Eastern Cape has a massive rugby-playing community, and the vast majority of these talented youngsters are people of colour. The Eastern Cape is also the second poorest province according to the most recent census, and as such the rugby clubs cannot afford the equipment to ensure their players are developed properly.

The recent liquidation of the Eastern Province Rugby Union has further hindered transformation progress. The recent South African addition to Super Rugby, the Eastern Province Kings, have had the most racially inclusive side at top level in South Africa for the past four years, albeit underperforming in every competition in which they have partaken.

The problem with the EP Kings is not the players are not good enough to compete at higher levels, but rather they have not had the privilege of top level coaching and equipment the likes of which the other South African Unions have had. Many EP Kings players have moved on to other unions and shown immense growth in short periods, proving all these players need is some proper coaching.

Lukhanyo Am is one such player. Am, who recently played for the Southern Kings in the 2016 Super Rugby, has made the move to Durban and has played for the Sharks in the Currie Cup this season. He has put up his hand, and was even one of the best players in the South African A side lost to the Saxon’s in June.

At a local level, clubs such as the Grahamstown Brumbies and the Swallows have within their ranks been overlooked due to their disadvantaged backgrounds, as they did not have the luxury of being developed at top rugby schools such as Greys High School Bloemfontein and Paarl Gymnasium. If these players, and even the local coaches, were given better training and equipment, then they would almost certainly be recognized by the top unions in the country.

Perhaps if these players in the Eastern Cape had been given equal access to opportunities by the South African Rugby Union, there would be no need for the quota system as the national side would be made up of the most deserving players, embodying a correct representation of the country in terms of race. If players from underprivileged communities across South Africa were scouted at an early age and developed properly, the Springboks could be performing differently than their current state. It is never too late to find out.

Images courtesy of South African Rugby.

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