England v South Africa: Springbok rugby - still torn over race?

By Tom FordyceChief sports writer
Nelson Mandela and 1995 South Africa World Cup-winning captain Francois Pienaar
It is 19 years since Nelson Mandela presented South Africa captain Francois Pienaar with the Webb Ellis Cup

"I do not care how the Springboks team does. It is not a reflection of the nation. It is not our team. I support the All Blacks instead. We don't support the national team, because it is a white South African team. It is not a true South African team."

Where would you date that sentiment from Zola Ntlokoma, secretary of Soweto Rugby Club? Autumn 1986, when a rebel New Zealand team broke the sporting boycott to tour apartheid-era South Africa?external-link June 1995, when the Springboks met All Blacks in the first World Cup final after Nelson Mandela's release from prison?

That it comes from November 2014 may come as a surprise to many of the 80,000 who will watch South Africa play England at Twickenham on Saturday, to the millions more who will watch on television.

Almost two decades on from that celebrated, poignant World Cup win for Mandela's 'Rainbow Nation', on the 20th anniversary of the first free elections in the country, isn't race a historical rather than live issue in South African rugby?

To which a few simple statistics should provide the sobering answer.

When the Springboks triumphed at Ellis Park in Johannesburg those 19 years ago, there was just one black player in the starting XV. By the time of their second World Cup win, seven years ago, there were two.

This weekend, when they run out to play England at Twickenham, there will still be only three.

England's team, drawn from a population that is 85% white, have a starting XV that is only 73% white. South Africa, representing a nation where whites makes up less than a 10th of the population, have a team that is four-fifths white.

Revolution, it is clear, happens slowly in South African rugby. But the wind of change, once again, may be blowing through this 'continent'.external-link

Earlier this year, a five-year 'Transformation Strategic Plan' from the South Africa Rugby Union (Saru) was leaked to the media. Among its stated aims were that the Springboks remain in the top three of the IRB world rankings. The headlines, understandably, were focused elsewhere.

By 2019, according to the plan, 50% of the national representative teams - including the Springboks - must be non-white. 60% of those should be black African.

By the time of next year's World Cup in England, the transformation must already be accelerating; South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer must have seven non-white players in his squad and five non-white players on the field at all times, two of whom should be black.

It is both laudably ambitious and bitterly controversial. It is also, according to some, a waste of the pdfs it was leaked on.

The Springboks have already employed their first black coach, the idiosyncratic Peter de Villiers. Their most celebrated player of the past decade is black winger Bryan Habana. And wasn't that World Cup win of 1995, when Mandela presented Francois Pienaar with the Webb Ellis trophy while wearing the once-hated Springbok jersey, supposed to have changed the country's sporting identity forever?

"The tragedy is that 1995 had very little positive effect," says Professor John Nauright, author of 'Long Run to Freedom', a seminal work on sport and identity in South Africa.

"There was a huge non-racial rugby movement that had gained strength. But the corporate structure of white rugby took over black rugby after apartheid.

Chester Williams (right) shares a joke with captain Francois Pienaar during the 1995 World Cup
Chester Williams (right), seen here sharing a joke with captain Francois Pienaar, was the lone black player in South Africa's 1995 World Cup-winning side

"Had the Springboks lost, the government would have pressed rugby officials to integrate top levels of rugby far faster. The Springbok jersey might have come under threat had they not complied. Instead it flourished.

"And so we have the same problem. You can't have 9% of the population controlling 90% of the playing positions in one of the dominant national sports. It just doesn't sustain itself."

One of the great myths of South African rugby is that it has always been a whites-only sport.

While rugby union is a cherished tenet of Afrikaans life - learned from the British in prisoner-of-war camps during the Boer War, spread by the ideology of muscular Christianity, essential to the resurgent Afrikaner nationalism of the middle 20th century that also produced the Broederbond, a secret masonic society that ran apartheid-era South Africa - it has also been played by blacks for just as long.

Around the eastern and western Cape, black and Coloured clubs proliferated. But the Springboks - arguably the dominant cultural symbol of apartheid society - went untouched.

Even by 1995, white winger James Small felt isolated within the team simply because his native tongue was English, not Afrikaans.

So why should this latest strategy succeed where the charisma and clout of Mandela and Pienaar failed? It is not just the end-point that few can agree upon. It's where the game stands now.

"I think the transformation is working," says Matt Stevens, the former England and Lions prop who is back in the land of his birth with the Sharks franchise.

"We have Tera Mtembu, the captain of our side, one of the best players in Super Rugby. There are players there on merit. It's already happened - there are players of colour coming through.

South Africa's Ricky Januarie tries to catch the ball from England's Matt Stevens (left) during their second Test march in Pretoria, in June 2007
Durban-born Stevens (left) won 44 caps for England before returning to South Africa last summer

"It was important to have a levelling of the playing field. Black players 15 years ago were not getting the same opportunities they are now.

"There is still a huge amount of inequality in South Africa, and that still has a long, long way to go. But in terms of people of colour being represented at the highest level, it's something which is definitely improving.

"We don't talk about transformation at the Sharks. The players that are there are there on merit."

Those battling at grassroots are not quite so sure.

The strategic plan talks of having 30,000 newly accredited coaches by 2019, complemented by 7,000 new referees. It wants to increase the number of primary school kids playing rugby by 100,000, and have a workable talent identification scheme in place in the long-neglected townships.

Commendable, indeed. But also, at this point, just an aim - not yet ratified at the highest level, not yet funded, not yet policy.

"It is a nonsense document," says Soweto's Ntlokoma. "It will lay where it is, gathering dust.

"How can you put together a transformative document by excluding the very people you want to help? When they made that document, who did they consult from the excluded?

Springboks wing Bryan Habana (right) takes a coaching clinic in Soweto in 2008
Bryan Habana (right) takes part in a Springboks coaching clinic in Soweto in 2008, but facilities in the township remain sparse

"When you read it you can see that they sugar-coat the facts. They are not dealing with the real issues that could make sure the sport changes.

"Black players are not getting sufficient opportunity. And there are no black administrators in positions of power. If you get into the South African Rugby Union, you don't have any power to initiate change. When it comes to voting for important matters, you have to accept that you will not be involved."

Saru are proud of the four academies they have set up in the black rugby strongholds of Boland, Border, South West Districts and Eastern Province, where schools are given assistance in developing their under-18 players and the pick aged from 19 to 21 are kept on residential courses.

Of the young players, 42% are black, 38% Coloured and 20% white. But the numbers, in a country with a population of 56 million, are still minute - 96 lads in the academies in total, across all four areas.

A third of last year's black and Coloured graduates moved into professional rugby this season. But the barriers to young black talent - sporting, social and economic - are still daunting.

"The first problem is that the schooling system is completely different in the townships and the rural areas to the suburbs," says Ntlokoma, who is setting up a coalition of township clubs to push for change.

"Schools in the townships don't have facilities. In the apartheid era, when the schools in the suburbs were created, they had two soccer fields, eight rugby fields, five basketball courts and so on. In the townships you might have one netball court if you are lucky.

"There is an issue with nutrition. There is poverty in the townships, yet to play rugby you have to have a good diet.

"And then there are facilities - it is very hard for township kids to go to a gym. The government is trying to build some eco-parks where there will be some basic facilities, but it's not enough to produce a professional rugby player.

"There is a great deal of interest in rugby. There is a great deal of talent in Soweto.

Boks captain Jean de Villiers receives a trophy from former South Africa president Thabo Mbeki and then deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe after victory over Argentina in Soweto in August 2013
Jean de Villiers receives a trophy from former South Africa president Thabo Mbeki (second right) and then deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe after victory over Argentina in Soweto last year

"Each April we have a tournament here, and so far it has produced 12 players who are playing provincial rugby. That shows how much talent there is here, if people will come and scout for it.

"But funding is a big problem. There's no appetite among black businesses to support rugby. They are flocking into soccer, because that is seen as the number one sport.

"They are alienated by the attitudes we face in the rugby system. They don't want to invest in a sporting culture that they consider racist or exclusive of other races."

The transformation strategy is careful not to mention quotas. Instead there is talk of targets - a meaningless distinction on the face of it, but equally an example of the precarious tightrope that South African sport has had to walk since apartheid fell.

Quotas and targets in South African sport
1994: Unofficial racial quotas are initially tried in rugby and cricket following the country's first democratic elections but are considered a failure and cause discontent among some players.
1998: The 'target transformation policy' which became known as the quota system is introduced in South African cricket. Makhaya Ntini, Ashwell Prince and Hashim Amla are among the most recognisable names to go on and succeed in Test cricket.
1999: Rugby union introduces quota system at Currie Cup and Vodacom Cup level. Scrapped in 2004.
2002: South African cricket decides to scrap the racial quota system in senior cricket.
2007: South African sports minister Makhenkesi Stofile rules out further use of racial quotas in South African sport.
2014: The 14 provincial clubs in rugby's Vodacom Cup have to pick seven non-white players in their 22-man squads.
2015? Rugby's unofficial 'Transformation Strategic Plan' sets a target of five non-white players in the Springboks team by the 2015 World Cup, and 50% of national representative teams to be non-white by 2019.

For there is one central issue that the strategy - impressively detailed, well timetabled - does not touch upon: what happens if the new-look Springboks fail on the field?

"If there is any decline in Springbok performance, everyone will be all over this policy," says Nauright.

"They have to get the chemistry right in a team that is more reflective of a multi-racial society. It has the potential to send the whole thing tumbling backwards if they don't do it carefully."

Current Springbok captain Jean de Villiers is both diplomatic on the theory and protective of the practical - those young black players who coach Meyer has recently brought into the side.

When back-row forward Teboho "Oupa" Mohoje was selected in place of experienced Schalk Burger in the recent Rugby Championship, traditionalists suspected those targets were already at work.

Teboho Mohoje
Teboho Mohoje has enjoyed a breakthrough season for the Boks, but some have queried his presence

Burger is back in Mohoje's place to face England. But De Villiers, like Meyer, refuses to make one or two of his team the singular face of a national issue.

"The guys we've got deserve their place on merit," he said this week.

"The worst thing would be if a guy is picked and you don't feel he's good enough. It's not fair to him or to anyone.

"We've got a team that believes in each other. It doesn't matter what colour their skin is. We need to make rugby a game for everyone in South Africa - but you work from the bottom up. You don't start at the top."

But the top is where you finish. And the top, at the moment, is not supported by its base.

Should the Springboks reach next year's World Cup final at Twickenham, meeting the All Blacks again as they did in front of Mandela, would the quietly spoken, thoughtful Ntlokoma support the land of his birth, or one 7,000 miles away?

"The All Blacks, all the way. Until the status quo changes, on the pitches and in the offices of Saru at Newlands, this too will never change."