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Liz McGregor

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

“I weep for the black boys who were never given a chance’

IN A bizarre move, the South African Rugby Union (Saru) has decided to withdraw funding for its academy in Port Elizabeth. It is one of four academies set up with great fanfare in 2013 with Lotto money in areas with substantial black rugby talent.

For the past two years, Saru has funded them. From next year, it will fund only the East London academy.

I spent last week in the Eastern Cape doing research for a film on transformation in rugby.

It rapidly became apparent that the Southern Kings are going to have difficulty fielding a credible Super Rugby team next year, never mind one that fulfils its promise of showcasing local black talent.

The Southern Kings team that lost to Western Province in a preseason Currie Cup friendly on Saturday was largely white and featured several players who have already been recycled through other unions.

The only bright spot for the Southern Kings on Saturday was their Under-19s, the one team to beat their Western Province counterparts. This is their third victory in a row. They have already won their games against the Cheetahs and the Bulls. Around half the Southern Kings under-19s team consists of black boys recruited from Eastern Cape schools and they are coached by a local player, former Sevens captain Mzwandile Stick.

The under-19s are products of the academy about to be cut adrift by Saru. There seems little hope of the Southern Kings taking up the slack. They are themselves in financial difficulties, unable to pay their players’ salaries for the past month.

It would be mortifying for SA if the Southern Kings’ Super Rugby venture were to be allowed to fail. Failure would partly be defined as fielding yet another team of largely white players bought in from elsewhere.

The bloated, 18-team version of Super Rugby that comes into being next year was created largely to accommodate their long-term inclusion. The reason Saru pushed so hard for it was to boost black rugby by giving the Eastern Cape its own team in the most competitive competition in world rugby.

They were right to do so. Not only will a successful Super Rugby team hugely strengthen black rugby but it will also limit the buying up of black players from the region by other franchises. If these players can achieve their dreams of making a Super Rugby or Springbok team in their own province, they will stay at home, where they will be a lot better off.

Speaking to rugby people in the Eastern Cape last week, I realised just how profound and widespread is the conviction that black players are deliberately excluded from professional teams. I was repeatedly given examples, for instance, of black players who could have shone in the place of some of the current Springboks incumbents.

“I have no problem with the white boys in the team,” said one. “They have worked very hard to get where they are. But I weep for the black boys who were never given the chance.”

Poverty and inequality are major culprits in keeping our teams white. For instance, a rugby coach at a mainly black former Model C school in Grahamstown said when his boys ran onto the field for practice at 3.30pm, he was very aware that they had been up since 4am for the long walk from township to school and that, in between, all they had had to eat was two slices of bread.

The same coach had been in charge of the Port Elizabeth Country Districts’ Craven Week squad the year before. He said the players had missed four meals before their first game because they weren’t given a travel allowance. This, before competing with players from some of the richest schools in the country.

But, on this trip, I also heard another view equally powerfully expressed: that, in fact, plenty of middle-class black boys were now also at good schools where they benefited from the same nutrition, education and sports facilities as white boys. And yet they were still not making it into professional teams.

These men I spoke to — intelligent, reasonable, passionate rugby fans — were adamant: a racial and cultural bias in mainstream rugby meant black boys were simply not being considered by a great number of white coaches.

In another development, it was reported at the weekend that the Super Rugby franchises are refusing to approve the allocation of broadcasting funds proposed for next year when the new deal kicks in. The proposal is to give the Super Rugby franchises R25m each a year and the eight small unions R15m. The big unions are balking at the share claimed by the other eight.

I hope the Super Rugby franchises stick to their guns. But I also hope this rebellion is part of a more ambitious plan to transform Saru so that it is better suited to serve South African rugby as a whole. The success or otherwise of the Southern Kings could be a litmus test of this.

The Southern Kings are clearly in need of help. I was told that, during Alan Solomons’s tenure as coach during the Kings’ first abortive Super Rugby stint, he established a clear progression path for players from under-19s to the senior team. In the succession of coaches who have followed him, this has been lost. As a result, the all-important development path for local players is interrupted.

Saru head office, which has until now so capably run the Eastern Cape academies, needs to take a more central role in the Eastern Cape. A hands-off attitude is not good enough. Cash that has been frittered away on professional teams run by the small unions should be diverted to development. Saru should not only continue to fund the Port Elizabeth Academy, but should expand it and establish others.

Anything less might make the allocation of a Super Rugby franchise to a black rugby-rich region look like a cynical gesture, setting them up to fail.

*This column first appeared in Business Day



It’s time we tackled inequality

WHENEVER I write about race in rugby, I have to brace myself for some particularly nasty hate mail. Suitably braced, here goes.

The recent commemoration of the 1995 Rugby World Cup pretty much summed up rugby’s transformation record in the intervening two decades — lots of glossy, feel-good stuff that tried but failed to smother the elephant in the room: that, 20 years on, a quota system is still required to ensure there are more than a couple of black players in the Springbok team.

One of the main reasons the South African Rugby Union has failed to develop black players in large numbers is that they rely almost exclusively on the 40-odd rugby specialist schools to produce players. These schools are mostly private or former Model C schools. All are based in areas that are still mostly white and therefore attract mostly white pupils. This cements the racial status quo in rugby and intensifies the inequality of opportunity for black children who want to make it to the top.

If Saru had responded appropriately to Nelson Mandela’s challenge in 1995, it would have directed a large proportion of the TV money brought in by the launch of professionalism the following year to developing rugby in targeted schools in black areas.

What is puzzling is that it is still not being done. Ever more ambitious quotas are being set for high-profile teams such as the Springboks but there is no concomitant strategy to give more black players a proper shot at achieving at this level. Saru has set up a couple of academies in the Eastern Cape but they serve a tiny minority of players.

The levels of inequality in SA remain stubbornly high. More middle-class black kids are going to richer schools but the vast majority of black children are in poorer state schools. Few have decent sporting facilities.

Waiting for the government to sort this out is not an option. But, given the will, rugby can make a difference. The obstacle is Saru’s love affair with professionalism.

Each of the 14 unions insists on its rights to field professional teams. This means that, in little towns all over the country, unions are pumping millions of rand into the maintenance of stadiums and salary packets for administrators, coaches, medical teams and squads of players. There is very little left over for development.

Most of the players they contract have been developed by the rugby schools. The same players are then recycled between different unions. The unions themselves do not have to pay for their development. The schools provide that, subsidised by parents and old boys. These are drawn mostly from communities who have a decades-long head start on the accumulation of social and financial capital.

If the French economist Thomas Piketty is right, the imbalance between them and communities who were prevented from accruing capital during apartheid will not change soon.

If Saru is serious about meeting its transformation targets, it might be wise to adopt a model that is better suited to a developing country. Professionalism could be confined to the Super Rugby franchises. They could focus on maintaining a globally competitive layer of players to feed the Springbok and Super Rugby teams.

A substantial portion of Saru’s income should be going into clubs and schools, particularly the black rugby schools in the Eastern Cape.

Now they get nothing from either Saru or the government to develop their rugby talent, and we wonder why, 20 years on from the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the team at the top is still mostly white.

Saru’s contribution is to dust off those hazy memories — which really just serve to remind us of a promise unfulfilled — to invoke rugby as nation-builder.

The teams fielded in Super Rugby this year were, as could be expected, mostly white. Except for the best local team in Super Rugby: the Stormers.

At around the same time that the class of ’95 were being celebrated, SA was waving goodbye to Allister Coetzee.

Coetzee, who routinely fielded 10 black players, dismisses talk of quotas and transformation charters as “utter rubbish”. He has a sophisticated understanding of race dynamics — born of his own experience of racism as an apartheid-era player and that of having to meld a racially diverse team in the cauldron of high-performance rugby.

One can’t pretend race doesn’t exist, he says.

What you have to do is to try to understand where each player is coming from: the white boy from Constantia or Bellville; the African boy from Khayelitsha; the coloured guy from Hawston.

To get the best out of each boy, a coach must work out what his triggers are.

That means making the effort to understand the player’s circumstances.

The coach who expects every boy to conform to his own cultural norms is never going to be able to successfully field a racially diverse team.

This does not mean the coach has to be black: an open-minded white coach prepared to venture out of his tribal comfort zone could also do it.

Critical for Coetzee is to provide role models. If a boy in Khayelitsha sees Siya Kolisi in a Stormers or Springbok jersey, he can see himself in one too. As long as “he is prepared to work his butt off and realise that it is about equal opportunity”, he too can make it.

In other words, don’t even think about making it on the back of a quota.

 *This column first appeared in Business Day

The first Muslim Springbok

IMG_0499RAMADAN starts on Thursday and that poses a challenge for one of the players on whom SA is relying this Saturday to salvage a bit of national pride from this year’s disappointing Super Rugby campaign.

Nizaam Carr, the first Muslim to have captained a Super Rugby team — last week against the Sharks — will this Saturday have to fill the big boots of Duane Vermeulen, who has been forced out with a neck injury. If the Stormers beat the Brumbies, they have a shot at making the Super Rugby finals.

Carr will enter the fray on an empty stomach. He will have been up before dawn to down a protein shake and some steak and pasta but by the time he runs out onto the field at Newlands at 5pm, he will not have eaten for several hours. Over the next month, he is likely to lose between 8kg and 12kg.

It is tough, he says, but manageable. He doesn’t feel that it affects his performance. His faith provides all the push he needs.

It is hard to believe that Carr is just 24. Rugby has both brought him fantastic opportunity and required exceptional emotional adaptability and resilience. His was not the usual path to the high road via a traditional rugby school. He grew up in Mitchell’s Plain.

His family later moved to Crawford and he attended Alexander Sinton High, a good state school but not one that offered rugby. He played on Saturdays for the Primrose club and, at the age of 15, he was spotted by a scout from Bishops and offered a bursary.

Bishops, the home of Anglicanism and old money, was worlds away from what he was used to and at first he struggled to fit in. But over the four years he was there, he learnt to take advantage of the fantastic facilities on offer.

At Alexander Sinton, there would be 45 kids in a class, whereas at Bishops, there might be 10. More than that, he told me, “they opened up my eyes to how successful you could be if you just worked hard”. After school, he sailed into the University of Cape Town, where he played for the Ikey Tigers in the Varsity Cup. From there, he was recruited into the Western Province Under-19s and Under-21s and, eventually the Currie Cup and Super Rugby teams.

Throughout, he has had to perform the difficult balancing act of remaining true to his religious beliefs while proving himself a team player in a very different culture.

At Bishops, he says, he had to explain why he could eat only halaal food. Another challenge he has had to grapple with is the drinking culture in rugby. It was hard at first, he says, and he felt he didn’t fit in. But he learnt to adapt and now happily sits through team dinners nursing a coke while his teammates get merry. He recognises that it is part of team building, he says, and he can’t slink away.

His teammates ensure he doesn’t feel the odd man out. After they won the Currie Cup last year, he took them all to a mosque and then to a halaal restaurant.

What he is desperate for now, like every other player in Super Rugby, is a spot in the Rugby World Cup squad. Carr, who last year became the first Muslim in the democratic era to pull on a Springbok jersey, is competing against a plethora of excellent loose forwards.

Carr’s articulate and confident defence of his religious rights highlights the question of freedom of religion. Christianity is central to South African rugby. Most teams pray before games. Some players and coaches offer a nod to God at media conferences.

Players and coaches have told me that prayers are about asking for protection from injury for both sides. And it promotes team spirit.

That’s all fine as long as it is acknowledged that the supreme being appears in different forms to different people — if they believe in one at all — and conformity to a particular religion doesn’t become a prerequisite for inclusion.

As far as openness in religion goes, I’d say that young Nizaam Carr offers a good example. He doesn’t proselytise but he does try to educate people about Islam: for instance, that the impression created by some media that it is a religion of extremists who yearn to join groups such as Islamic State is wrong.

This year, he and a partner opened a sports academy in Lansdowne. For now, it offers only Grades 8 and 9 and there are just 45 pupils. The academic curriculum runs from 8am to 3pm. After that there is intensive training in rugby, soccer and cricket. He is in charge of the rugby. Talented kids from poor backgrounds get scholarships and his own sponsor provides all the kit for free. It’s about giving back, he says.

His academy, the Cape Sports Academy, is not only for Muslims. “We have boys from all over,” he says proudly. “We have an African kid and a Jewish one.”

 *This column first appeared in Business Day

Review: What will People Say? by Rehana Rossouw

I happened to be reading Rehana Rossouw’s fine novel, What will People Say? while the four-year long trial of gangster boss George “Geweld” Thomas was coming to an end.  Thomas had been at it since the age of nine. Forty years later, he was given seven life sentences for, among other things, seven murders. These included three he carried out himself.  The other four he ordered from his cell while awaiting trial.  Altogether six state witnesses were murdered, apparently at his behest. Nice fellow.

Rossouw’s book, set in Hanover Park in the eighties, deals with the kind of milieu in which gangsters such as Thomas are formed. She grew up close by and had relatives in Hanover Park.  The book feels authentic, aided by her liberal use of local dialect without, nogal, the distancing technique of italics or quote marks. It’s fantastic this – a rich infusion into standard English and Afrikaans. Language is used to articulate a unique culture.

What will People Say? follows the fortunes of the Fourie family.  Neville or “Dedda” is the good father, struggling to raise his three children in what is effectively a war zone.  Partly this is created by the apartheid police and army but more insidious and, as the Thomas trial shows, more resilient, is the destruction wrought by the gangs.

The counterbalance is the church to which Neville’s wife, Magda, belongs. Rigid and bullying, it merely piles on the pressure for Neville, trying to create a normal life for his kids. Despite his – and Magda’s – best efforts, their son, Anthony, is sucked into a gang.

Other families in the book are complicit.  When the time came for sentencing of Thomas and his 16 co-accused, it was extraordinary to hear the glowing character references from the women in their lives.  Rossouw’s book gives an insight into the eco-system of gangsterism. It is not just  about the men who pull the trigger.









Allister, jou lekker ding

IT SEEMS pretty certain now that Allister Coetzee will leave the Stormers on a high note, which is excellent news, both for him and for the team he will leave behind. A win against the Lions this weekend will secure the Stormers’ position at the head of the South African conference for the third time in the five years that Coetzee has led the Cape side.

Coetzee jets off to a new coaching job in Japan at the conclusion of the 2015 Super Rugby competition, leaving Western Province in good shape. The Stormers, now second in the overall log, have a shot at a home semifinal. Last Saturday, their Vodacom Cup team made it through to the final after an unbroken nine-game stampede through the pool games. Unfortunately for them, they were pipped to the post by a powerful Pumas team but, nevertheless, it proved that WP has a deep seam of competitive players.

They are also growing able coaches: Vodacom Cup coach, John Dobson, will later this year take over from Coetzee as Currie Cup coach.

Behind the scenes, Western Province director of rugby, Gert Smal, has been quietly putting in place foundations that should ensure solid growth for at least the next few years.

Since he joined Western Province last year, Smal has been on a recruiting drive to increase depth in the junior teams and he has also strengthened the management team. Sports psychologist, Henning Gericke, who accompanied the Proteas to the World Cup earlier this year, is working with all the Western Province teams. The appointment of a kicking coach in Vlok Cilliers is another innovation.

Continuity and institutional memory will be retained through Coetzee’s long-time assistants: backline maestro, Robbie Fleck, and forwards coach, Matt Proudfoot. The unassuming Proudfoot is the power behind the Stormers’ front row, arguably the best in Super Rugby at the moment.

Smal himself brings considerable intellectual capital. The former Springbok flanker was an assistant coach to Jake White from 2003 to 2007, when the Boks won the Rugby World Cup. As assistant coach to Declan Ireland’s Irish team from 2007 to 2013, he gained invaluable international experience and a fresh perspective on the South African rugby environment. The fact that he helped the Irish team take a Six Nations title, a Grand Slam and a Triple Crown didn’t do his reputation any harm.

The question mark hanging over the High Performance Centre in Bellville now is: who will succeed Coetzee as Super Rugby coach?

There are plenty of able and experienced men who would leap at the chance of coaching the Stormers but the shambles at the once proud Sharks shows the perils of jetting in high-profile coaches.

It would reflect well on Western Province’s development structures if they were to choose a home-grown candidate, who has emerged from within their own ranks.

If Dobson does well in the Currie Cup, he will presumably be in the running. Dobson has been with Western Province since 2010. He and his assistant coach, Dawie Snyman, started off with the Under-21s, where there was a focus on bringing through players of colour.

I shadowed the University of Cape Town’s Ikey Tigers through their 2010 Varsity Cup campaign for a book I was writing. Dobson, who holds a BA LLB and an MA in Creative Writing from UCT, was head coach. What struck me was how much thought went into creating a unique culture for the team. They had a theme song called the Poet Warriors. Team talks were infused with poetry and tales of heroism from the First World War.

Being a university team, it was more highbrow than most, but the principle would apply anywhere. Every team needs a story: to cement mutual understanding and strengthen team bonds. You need a narrative to make sense of the vicissitudes of fortune. Someone else has described sports teams as “cauldrons of bubbling emotion”, which seems an accurate description of the devastation that accompanies every loss and the elation of a win.

When it comes to professional rugby, you need a tale to tell the media and the fans. A coach with a facility for words and the ability to spin a convincing yarn has the edge.

The other thing that struck me about Dobson was, after matriculating from Bishops, he spent a year playing for the Elsie’s River club. Mixing with teammates who couldn’t afford proper boots and arrived in a taxi after a night shift at a factory gave him an insight into how most of SA lives.

Western Province is blessed with great diversity among its fan base. Credit then to the coach who makes an attempt to understand the circumstances of players who come from a very different background.

*This column first appeared in Business Day



The rebirth of a Bok legend

IT IS a career trajectory that would work in almost any profession. Start off with a full-time job where you can gain skills, experience and contacts.

And, important, become familiar with the ecosystem in your particular field. Then, when you tire of having your prospects determined by the whims of a boss, you develop your own vision for your career and set about making it happen.

In rugby, the process starts earlier and is more compressed.

Take Fourie du Preez, for instance. He was recruited by Heyneke Meyer while still at Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool and joined the Bulls as a contracted player as soon as he had matriculated.

Du Preez was a founding member of the killer squad, handpicked and moulded by Meyer, which went on to win the Currie Cup for three consecutive years and, in 2007, became the first South African team to bring home the Super Rugby trophy. Later that year, the same Bulls core helped the Springboks to their second Rugby World Cup victory under Jake White.

Two years later, Du Preez was key to one of the best ever years for a Springbok team. In 2009, they first beat the British and Irish Lions and, then the All Blacks. Not once but three times.

But, after a long golden run in terms of injuries, Du Preez finally succumbed. In 2010, he had surgery for a shoulder injury, followed by six months of rehab.

No sooner was he back on the field in 2011 than he injured his knee in a Super Rugby game.

And then, of course, he was part of the Springbok team which was ejected so ignominiously from the Rugby World Cup in 2011.

Despite the fact that he was only 30 and widely considered the best scrumhalf in the world, Du Preez turned his back on international rugby and settled for the relative obscurity of Japanese club rugby.

It was a bold move for a man who had never lived anywhere but Pretoria. But he was burnt out from the emotional and physical toll of having played 80 minutes in a pivotal position of almost every Currie Cup, Super Rugby and Springbok game for 10 years.

If it wasn’t for Japan, he says, he might have stopped playing rugby altogether after the 2011 World Cup.

Not only has his stint at Suntory Goliath taught him a new approach to the game, being immersed in a foreign culture has revitalised him.

Simple things, such as using public transport to get to training, delight him, as does the equilibrium he has managed to achieve between work and family.

Most of his teammates at Suntory Goliath have other jobs at the company so rugby is confined to half the day. Du Preez says he has learnt from this that it is entirely possible to balance professional rugby with study and family.

These days many players are taking a more entrepreneurial approach to their careers. They mix and match clubs and countries: they play Super Rugby but eschew Currie Cup, opting instead to spend the South African summer playing in Europe or Japan.

This means they are available for selection for some Springbok games.

Where Du Preez has broken the mould is that he won’t even play Super Rugby. He told me that one of his chief reasons for leaving SA was Super Rugby, with its punishing toll on players’ bodies and the endless travel. For most players, this would be a risky move — after all, Super Rugby is the parade ground where players hope to catch the eye of the Springbok coach. But Du Preez is experienced and confident enough to know he can get away with it and still make it into the Bok squad. In fact, judging by the injury list at the Springbok camp a few weeks ago, it is a wise move.

Anyone playing Super Rugby now could break down with a long term injury which could rule them out of the World Cup.

Luck is on his side in that no one has emerged to seriously challenge him for the scrumhalf berth. Even if there had, it is unlikely Meyer would have gone to the UK without one of his most trusted proteges.

The Japanese season runs from September to the end of February. Du Preez told me that, since 2013, he has been returning to SA for our winter months and following his own training and conditioning routine.

He has been doing rehab for an ankle injury and cross-training in a private gym three times a week. Soon his routine will include speed training and contact fitness and possibly a few games with the Bulls’ under-21s.

His regimen was worked out by specialists in Japan. He makes it clear that he has moved on from what he learnt at the Bulls. Du Preez is honing and refining his game. With the new nimbleness in his approach to life, we can expect Du Preez to add a layer of sophistication to the Springbok game.

Because there is no doubt that this is where he is headed. Heyneke Meyer has made it clear Du Preez is part of his plans for the World Cup. He will be integrated into the squad during the Rugby Championships and hopefully be at peak game fitness during the key World Cup games.

Unlike most of the rest of the team, who will be worn out by months of Super Rugby, Du Preez will be fresh and fit.

*This column first appeared in Business Day


How outsiders become insiders

I HAVE just returned from London, where I looked in vain for some evidence of excitement building up for the Rugby World Cup.

Understandably, I guess, it has been eclipsed by Thursday’s general election, which will be as closely fought as the play-offs between the world’s top rugby teams are likely to be in a few months’ time.

The latest polls show the Conservatives and Labour neck and neck, with the third most popular party, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), at 12%. UKIP, with its narrow definition of Britishness and its anti-immigrant stance, has to constantly fend off accusations of racism.

For instance, they have just had to ditch one of their prospective MPs, Robert Blay, for threatening to put “a bullet between the eyes” of his Conservative opponent if he ever became prime minister. Ranil Jayawardene, said Blay, was “not British enough to be in our parliament” because his father was born in Sri Lanka.

We are not the only country struggling with xenophobia. Between the dodgier elements of UKIP and an ongoing demonisation of immigrants in the right-wing media, those perceived as outsiders might not feel too welcome in Britain either.

Unless they happen to be rugby players. The inaugural European Champions Cup, which replaced the Heineken Cup, has intensified the competition between French and English clubs and some of the latter are campaigning to be allowed to spend more on recruitment, which means more players from the rugby-rich southern hemisphere.

In another closely fought contest, Toulon last Saturday beat Clermont to take the European crown for the third time in a row. Toulon are the game-changers in European rugby. Their continued ascendance has rattled the English clubs.

Toulon owner Mourad Boudjelellal has the money to buy the best players from all over the world. The English clubs, though, have a salary cap of £5m. The Saracens have been accused of breaching this cap, a charge they vigorously deny. However, the owner of Saracens, Nigel Wray, is quoted as saying the salary cap “does not allow us to compete on a level playing field with teams in Europe”.

However, as Robert Kitson points out in the Guardian, it is not simply unlimited funds that make Toulon impregnable.

“The collective desire to deliver a suitably grand send-off for their three soon-to-retire heavyweights, Ali Williams, Bakkies Botha and Carl Hayman — the trio’s names were even stitched into the inside of the team’s jerseys” — helped to give Toulon the edge on Saturday.

“Toulon may have loads of money but the French champions also have the good sense to sign committed people rather than mercenaries … it is Toulon’s can-do attitude towards recruitment that is taking them to places others cannot reach.”

Outsiders can become insiders then, given the right attitude by the hosts.

The looming Rugby World Cup gives the Us and Them question a new impetus.

Toulon player Steffon Armitage is the subject of hot debate. Britain’s Rugby Football Union stipulates that, in order to be considered for the England squad, a player must play in the Aviva Premiership. Exceptions are permitted, though, and one would have thought Armitage’s talents would have had England coach Stuart Lancaster calling.

Apparently, Lancaster is afraid introducing an outsider — even a British one — would upset his current team.

Pragmatic Australia have no such qualms. The Australian Rugby Union has amended its RWC eligibility rules in time to give another Toulon veteran a shot at inclusion. Matt Giteau might get another chance to play for his country. When he left Australia for France, the rules were that foreign-based players were no longer eligible to play for the Wallabies. The new rules allow players with over 60 Test caps and at least seven years with Australian rugby into the squad.

We too have changed our rules since Heyneke Meyer became coach. The fact that the RWC will be played in the UK means players accustomed to northern hemisphere conditions will have an edge. That includes another Toulon player, Bryan Habana. Described last week in the London Sunday Times as “still quick but not lightning anymore and he spends too much time moaning”, Habana is nevertheless guaranteed a spot in the Springbok squad.

Meantime, World Rugby is under pressure to review its rule that allows foreign players to qualify for a national squad if they have lived in their host country for three consecutive years and have not been capped at A level in their country of birth. Rory Kockott qualifies to play for France under this rule.

I hope they review it. I think it takes the expediency of professionalism a bit too far. Rugby World Cups bring out the visceral patriotism in most of us and we ought to be allowed to indulge it once every four years, safe in the knowledge that every player in our team is indeed one of us.


Soar of the Sea Hawks

JUSTIN Swart makes his living from the sea, as did his father and grandfather before him.

It’s a tough life: he sets out most days in a small wooden boat before sunrise, sometimes returning only after dark. The boat is open, its crew exposed to the rain and the wind.

Sometimes, he says, the waves are so high, he loses sight of the other boats. It is a job that requires courage, physical strength and an appetite for risk.

All these qualities come in handy in the winter when he switches his focus to his other passion, rugby. Colder water means fewer fish so the boats go out less often, which means more time to devote to his team, the Arniston Sea Hawks.

Arniston is a charming seaside village on the southern Cape coast, about a three-hour drive from Cape Town. It is split roughly in two, with the Arniston Hotel in the centre.

On the left are the largely white-owned holiday houses and on the right, the 200-year-old fishing village of Kassiesbaai. Just below the hotel is the small harbour with its flotilla of brightly coloured fishing boats.

At the entrance to Kassiesbaai is the Sea Hawks Rugby Football Club. The grounds are well-maintained and lined by floodlights. The land was donated to the club by Denel, the state arms manufacturer, which has a test range up the road.

The Sea Hawks are one of the 225 clubs which make up the Boland Rugby Union and they play in the Boland-organised Overberg First League. The Sea Hawks lost their first game, against Caledon, and last Saturday they were due to take on Grabouw’s Spring Roses.

I watched them train one evening last week: the players arrived one by one, each unpacking their boots from a plastic shopping bag. After some limbering up, much of the training centred on passing, deft and quick.

Around the edges of the field, about 15 small boys kicked balls and crashed into tackle bags.

The Sea Hawks is run by a committee with a chair, vice-chair, secretary, treasurer as well as three additional members. Most were at the training session despite a chilly wind, and relative darkness, thanks to load shedding.

The secretary of the Sea Hawks is also a member of the all-powerful fishermen’s union. Kassiesbaai is one big erf, controlled by the union, which allocates ground for the building of houses — the only criterion being that the applicant, or his/her mother or father, must have been born in Kassiesbaai.

There are about 150 houses, all of which conform to the traditional style: either white-washed or clad in local stone.

There is a primary school, a library, a clinic and about 1,000 people live here.

Fishing and rugby are the primary activities.

Walk around Kassiesbaai and you will see groups of boys of all ages throwing balls to each other.

The Sea Hawks field two teams in the league and have a squad of 50 players, aged from 18 to the late 30s. Almost all are fishermen. But, mostly, fishing is about subsistence. About 80% of the players are officially unemployed.

Jobs are scarce. The hotel employs a few people from Kassiesbaai, including Justin’s mother, Kathleen.

A few women clean the holiday houses on the ether side of town. Denel mops up a few more.

In an area of such high unemployment, one might expect more delinquency but, apart from a couple of troublesome families, Kassiesbaai is largely drug and gang free. The Sea Hawks play a valuable role, soaking up the energies of underemployed young men and giving them discipline and purpose.

Boland Rugby Union organises the league and provides courses in coaching, administration and refereeing but they do not provide any financial help.

This is a source of frustration to the Sea Hawks.

This financially straitened community must raise R2,700 just to register for the league. On top of that comes the cost of equipment, jerseys, boots, balls and travel for away games. Because there is so little commercial activity in the area, they struggle to find sponsors. Yet they somehow manage to make it work.

About 250 people attend home games on average and they pay an entrance fee: R10 for adults and R5 for kids. Extra money is raised from the sale of cooldrinks and boerewors rolls.

Plastered around the village last week were posters advertising transport to Grabouw for Saturday’s game.

Spectators are invited to join the team bus in order to help pay for it: R50 for adults and R25 for children. The players have to fork out too: R25 each. This is the only way they can afford to travel.

There are similar clubs all over the Boland region, many in poorer and more dysfunctional communities.

As in Kassiesbaai, rugby plays a useful role in strengthening social cohesion, providing boys with good role models and keeping them off the streets.

I hope that the Boland Union reconsiders their priorities. Instead of spending their money on fielding professional teams in the Currie Cup and Vodacom Cup, it seems to me it would be far better spent on their constituent clubs. This is where nation-building begins.

Swart is now 34. In a couple of years’ time, he will hang up his boots and go on one of the coaching courses provided by Boland Rugby Union so that he can help nurture the next generation of Sea Hawks.

 *This column first appeared in Business Day

Play now, pay later

GLAMOROUS though it might appear, a career in rugby is not the wisest choice. Each year, about 200 boys sign on for the first time with one of the 14 unions. At any one time, there are about 1,000 professional players in the system. At the most, 5% of them will make it into the national team, which means they stand a chance of earning enough to live on and, at the same time, investing enough money to retire on.

Salaries for the vast majority of professional players are low. A junior player contracted to one of the eight smaller unions will earn an average of R100,000 a year. A senior player will earn R200,000. The minority who make it into Super Rugby squads will earn between R700,000 and R800,000. They will earn this amount, if they are lucky, for about 10 years. It will not be enough to provide for them and their families once their rugby-playing days are over.

Most contracts stipulate a 40-hour week: players have to report for work between 8am and 4pm and they get 20 days’ holiday a year. This means it is difficult for them to prepare at the same time for a second career by studying or doing some sort of apprenticeship.

Those who make it to Super Rugby can make it work if they are clever about the opportunities that come their way. They can secure sponsorships and make the contacts which might help them get decent jobs after rugby. Some Premier Division Currie Cup players might also be able to leverage their brand value. But for most Vodacom Cup players, the future is bleak.

This is one of the reasons the professional aspirations of the small unions is so problematic. They don’t do these young men any favours.

There is one glowing exception: the Welkom-based Griffons.

The Griffons are an exceptionally well-managed union. They have thought through their role in an intelligent and realistic way and implemented a strategy which keeps the union solvent, treats their players fairly and produces winning rugby.

The Griffons started life as the Northern Free State Provincial team and were based in the then thriving mining community in Welkom. Club rugby was strong and most mines had their own teams.

Now there are hardly any working mines and their funds come mostly in the form of the R10m annual share of broadcasting revenue from the South Africa Rugby Union.

The Griffons decided about eight years ago that the best way to serve rugby in their region was to position themselves as a development unit.

This meant limiting the amount they spent on professional players and instead instituting an innovative system of semi-professionalism. They allocate less than half their income to professional salaries.

Some of their players have full-time jobs at local firms. Their employers usually deduct the time spent on training and matches but the Griffons pay a monthly retainer and a decent match fee as compensation.

Other players are full-time students. Some play for the University of Free State Varsity Cup team, the Shimlas, and they are loaned to the Griffons for five months.

The Griffons management encourage their players to study. They plan their training schedules around the timetables of the students and those who work for outside firms.

Last year, the union took home the First Division Currie Cup, proving that, despite these restrictions, they are still able to produce winning rugby. They also manage to nurture stars for the bigger stage: both Cecil Afrika and Branco du Preez started their professional careers at the Griffons.

Unlike some other unions, the Griffons stay within their budget. For the past six years, the union has broken even, despite the fact that they channel significant funding into the clubs and schools that fall under their jurisdiction. They field several amateur provincial teams, including girls’ under 15s, women’s under 17; provincial under 19s and under 17s.

As a journalist, what impressed me most about the Griffons was their openness. All it took was an email to their CEO, Eugene van Wyk, to elicit a copy of their 2014 financial statements, complete with a detailed breakdown of where every cent goes.

This is despite the fact that Van Wyk is currently in Australasia, touring with the Cheetahs, for whom he acts as team manager.

Instead of trying to compete with the Cheetahs, their local Super Rugby franchise, the Griffons collaborate with them and share resources. It’s eminently sensible and an example that all the small unions should be following.

Semi-professionalism is the way to go for the smaller unions. It means that they can stay within their budgets, provide proper support to amateur rugby in their regions and manage their contracted players properly. And that means ensuring they balance their rugby with preparation for a second career.

*This column first appeared in Business Day




A blinding white


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THERE were eight black players in the Western Province team which played the Lions in the Currie Cup final in October last year: six in the starting line-up and another two on the bench. The Lions had three black players in their squad. Western Province beat the Lions 19-16.

This fact is interesting in the light of a statement made to Parliament this week by Oregan Hoskins, president of the South African Rugby Union (Saru).

“In Saru we try to do the right thing,” he said. “I have to look at a white player and say we have to replace you with a black player because of transformation. It’s part of the job, but we will try to maintain a balance between competitiveness and transformation.”

He seemed to be saying that there is a trade-off between competitiveness and transformation and that a white player equals competitiveness and putting a black player in his place is just doing one’s political duty.

I can’t imagine Mr Hoskins, himself a man of colour, really believes this but nevertheless it is the philosophical basis of the policy with which Saru plans to shake up the racial demographics of rugby.

The plan is based on quotas: that is, persuading coaches to put more black players on the field. The subtext is that having more black players on the field might well result in a drop in standards but that this is the price one has to pay for playing rugby in SA.

Just one example of why this is an incorrect assumption is last year’s Currie Cup final.

This equation of whiteness with excellence is not confined to rugby; but rugby is the focus here and what the poverty of Saru’s vision reveals is how outdated is the thinking within it.

The Saru general council is mostly white, largely elderly and all male. As is the tendency with old boys’ clubs, they replicate themselves in subservient structures. White union presidents appoint white CEOs and white coaches who favour white players. It is narrow, self-affirming and exclusive.

In any organisation, it is critical that management reflects the diversity they want to create. It is too easy for a white manager to pick someone who looks and speaks like him, who went to the same school and the same church. He knows which buttons to press to get results.

A black African Springbok described to me how he experienced it: “White coaches trust their own kind. If someone of colour comes along, you have to work three times as hard for them to trust you. If you are a similar race, they will trust you. But for someone of colour, even though your record can speak for itself, you have to prove yourself again and again.”

Even though there was no increase in the number of black Springboks when Peter de Villiers was head coach, the fact that he was not white made a difference.

“Often your coach is a kind of mentor,” said the black Bok. “Someone you can lean on, tell him when you are stressed or whatever. It’s much easier to confide in a black coach than it is to confide in a white coach, because you feel he can relate to what you are saying.

“Some white coaches are good in that they give you the freedom to share what you are feeling but you don’t feel comfortable to share the deep stuff. Because we all struggle to break through to senior levels — both the coach and the players — so we are all going through the same thing.”

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the team which won the Currie Cup with eight black players last year is coached by SA’s only senior coach of colour.

Allister Coetzee has headed the Western Province Currie Cup coaching team for the past eight years and the Super Rugby team for the past six. He is our first and only black Super Rugby coach, an indictment in itself.

Coetzee claims he does not see colour. He simply chooses the best player, regardless of race. There is no doubt this is true.

But I also think that the fact that he is himself of colour gives confidence to black players. Race is still too loaded an issue for it not to affect perceptions of oneself and others, especially in the cauldron of intensely competitive, professional team sports.

If Saru is serious about wanting more black players on the field, they need to stop talk of quotas and focus on modernising themselves. That is where transformation is really needed.

  *This column first appeared in Business Day