It seems over the last couple of weeks that myself and my rugby writing colleagues have been speaking about transformation in rugby as much as we have been speculating over Heyneke Meyer’s final World Cup selection.
A common theme in these discussions has been that transformation is not so much about writing the wrongs of the past, but more about ensuring that Springbok rugby grows stronger and stronger; at the moment it is a minority sport in South Africa (however passionately it is supported) and it’s just common sense that taking the game to more communities will increase the talent base and therefore improve the standard of play.
There are about 500 000 rugby players in South Africa and, although the majority of those are undoubtedly White and Coloured, there are strong areas of Black representation. The Eastern Cape is a hotbed of rugby and anyone who says the sport isn’t part of Black culture should go and pay a visit to that province, where the passion for the oval ball outweighs that for football in many areas.
Transformation is about providing equal opportunities to these communities, who are undoubtedly lagging behind socio-economically due to the injustices of the past. I’ve heard many South Africans complain about the All Blacks and the Wallabies and their use of players from the Pacific islands, but we have a vast reservoir of talent that is lying untapped – we should be worried about our house and getting that in order. I am sure the Springboks will be even stronger once we maximise the talent from the Eastern Cape.
One of the other gripes I hear all the time is “So when will transformation end?”
I am indebted to supersport.com rugby editor Johan Coetzee for giving the best answer to this question: When a rugby player born in Mdantsane has the same chance of making it as one born in Waterkloof.
And for those who accuse Bafana Bafana of not being fully representative: more whites have played for the national soccer team than Blacks for the Springboks.
For the majority of young Black rugby players, their challenges to success on the field are far greater – they often come from poor backgrounds where things White prospects can take for granted like nutrition, transport, decent facilities and familial support are conspicuously absent.
Even if they do make it to a professional level, their chances of gaining selection are smaller than their White counterparts, according to a thesis by Jacques du Toit of the University of Cape Town, who found that between 2007 and 2012, playing times for Whites at all levels from Vodacom Cup actually increased while that of Blacks decreased.
Through my friendship with several Black rugby writers and broadcasters, I have heard a common refrain that it is still not a level playing field at professional level, never mind the vast disparities that exist at grassroots, and the statistics seem to back that up.
The first thing that the South African Rugby Union need to do is improve access to rugby in schools across the land. Cricket South Africa have asked for the assistance of government in taking their sport into schools and earlier this week they signed an operational agreement with the departments of basic education and sports and recreation which will improve opportunities at disadvantaged schools.
Rugby needs to do the same; government has to come to the party if transformation is going to happen.
Secondly, Saru have to ensure that there is more opportunity in professional rugby for Black players to shine. That is their area of jurisdiction and, whether by quotas or some other mechanism, we cannot have a situation where levels of representation have not improved since the 2007 World Cup.
Again, they could take a leaf out of cricket’s book.
Omphile Ramela was a journeyman batsman who had never averaged over 35 in a South African domestic season, until 2014/15 when CSA’s increased targets forced the Cape Cobras to play him in just about all their games. Suddenly, given decent opportunity ie a run of games, he blossomed, averaging 48 for the Cape Cobras as they won the four-day title, and earning him a place in the SA A squad.
This week he scored a century against India A as SA A enjoyed their best day of what had been a dismal tour up till then.
Now that’s what you call transformation.