Transformation in Rugby


In other nations, having a world champion sports team, especially one that beat all the odds, would elicit unequivocal praise and celebration. But not so in South Africa. In fact, in some quarters, many people refused to celebrate the Springboks triumphant moment and instead leveled criticisms at the team’s lack of transformation and representation. These criticisms, most notably leveled by the EFF and Mbuyiseni Ndlozi are wafer thin in light of how top heavy schoolboy rugby is not just in South Africa is but also in other powerhouse nations like New Zealand and England, but also because relatively few young rugby players become elite schoolboy players let alone professional ones.

Should the Springboks be representative?

The short answer is no. There are two pathways to get to this conclusion, the first being that other champion sports teams aren’t representative either. The French football world cup winning side is not representative of French society and neither is the American Basketball team and so it should be asked why do the Springboks need to be exactly representative? That is not to dismiss the real value of children of colour seeing people who look like them playing for the Springboks especially when in many parts of the country rugby is considered a white sport but it is to say there isn’t any real logical reason for a sports team to be forced to be exactly demographically representative especially if this will come at the expense of picking the best or the most suitable squad of players.

The second is that many arguments for transformation are interchangeable with arguments for quota’s. These arguments are ill fitting for a number of reasons. Critics often cite an assumed bias in rugby which works against players of colour and so we have to ask how this bias manifests. There are roughly 150 players eligible for Springbok selection (spread across 5 super rugby franchises and some overseas clubs), players who are watched eagerly by millions of people every single week.

In a country as race sensitive as South Africa, surely if there was any kind of even subtle bias against players of colour it would be splashed all across our mainstream media outlets and social media yet such accusations of bias are absent from the discourse. The inverse is also true. If players of colour were being shoehorned in, there would also be a large outcry from those who accuse the Springboks of being a quota team and yet this too has largely been absent from serious discourse and if there is bias then surely it shouldn’t be hard to name the players who are benefiting or being unjustly overlooked because of this bias. There are after all only about 150 players and we watch them every single week during the season. Rather than the saccharine calls for unity post our world cup win, what was most noteworthy about the Springboks was that it was a team picked on merit. The Springboks are a superb argument for a merit based system. Even the metrics show that this Springbok team was an all time great team especially on the defensive end.

What about the school system?

Another argument leveled by the critics is that the school rugby system is heavily weighted towards privileged, nominally white schools and so poor (black) children are unjustly not given opportunities to thrive.

While on the surface this has a lot of truth to it, it does not begin to tell the whole story. While resources in a given school matter, merely pouring resources into underprivileged schools would not necessarily produce the desired outcomes. The best illustration of this is how the 3 Paarl Schools (Paarl Boys High, Paarl Gimnasium and Paul Roos) regularly outperform the big 4 (Rondebosch Boys, Bishops, SACS and Wynberg Boys) in the Cape Town Southern Suburbs on the rugby field.

We cannot put this down to a resource mismatch as this happens in all our provinces where schools with similar resource profiles can have varying profiles of success. For many reasons schoolboy rugby is top heavy. The same schools year in and year out get most of the talented rugby players, they beat other schools (with similar resource profiles) and rightfully see many of their players being selected for the Craven Week teams. This isn’t even an ostensibly racial issue as many schools have seen drastic demographic changes since 1994 but retain high levels of excellence and success on the rugby field. Schools like Selborne, Dale, Grey High, Westville Boys, Northwood and Glenwood come to mind. Talented boys, no matter their colour are simply plugged into excellent systems and school cultures and heritage and they are then positioned to succeed. Thinking of this in purely resource terms or even racial terms obscures this fact.

Is there a question mark?

If there are indeed tough questions to be asked, we can at least ask if talented schoolboys of colour, once they reach union level, are given a fair shot. For example the situation at the Sharks with Curwin Bosch and Inny Radebe and how an average player like Robert Du Preez is given endless chances to prove himself by his own father over players like Bosch and Radebe. This could simply just be a textbook case of nepotism but it is well worth asking if players of colour are given as much opportunity at this level as their white counterparts because both the schoolboy system and the Springboks are at the very least largely merit driven.

What to do?

I believe that the true transformation in rugby lies in upending the entire system. I’m not confident there is enough appetite for this but I believe professional rugby should be a club system, one which, if negotiated cleverly by the powers that be, would incentivise private rugby clubs, perhaps even born from successful football teams like Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates who already have structures and facilities in place in underprivileged areas and recognisable brands.

Having a moneyed club system with already existing infrastructure and brand trust in townships and rural areas that could be paralleled with the excellent schoolboy system is a much better approach than having government pour in resources into communities that will likely not be maintained or coupled with coaching, nutritional and cultural systems to complement the infrastructure.

Government has more important priorities like science labs, libraries and school toilets and cannot responsibly spend money on what is fundamentally an elite endeavour and privatising the whole structure of rugby and turning it into a club system will have the added benefit of opening up the sport to increased viewership, brand identification and increased revenues which means our top players will be incentivised to stay here. If we want more players of colour in professional rugby then we should open up the whole system while ensuring it remains merit based and fair to everyone.

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