Study finds little fair play in treatment of SA’s black rugby players

Study finds little fair play in treatment of SA’s black rugby players

If you don’t want to hear about transformation, look away now. It’s going to dominate the conversation for a long time to come. A study published in 2014 showed that black players were heavily underrepresented in terms of playing time from 2007-2012. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

If you don’t like the word transformation, look away now. It’s a topic that will continue to dominate the conversational discourse in South Africa until rugby teams across the country are more representative of the demographics of the population. While arguing representation simply for the sake of representation is problematic, it is something that simply cannot be ignored in South Africa.

Yes, you should pick the “best players on merit” but how will you know who the best players are if not all players have access to the same quality of resources? The approach thus far has often been haphazard. Quotas from the top do not solve some of the issues at grassroots level.

Transformation is stagnant for a number of reasons. Firstly, at grassroots level it takes an immense amount of effort to take underprivileged kids to the top. The bulk of South Africa’s rugby players (white and black) only come from a handful of schools. At these schools, the coaching and facilities are world class. Simply doing a drop-in coaching clinic isn’t  going to magic up a sportsman. Resources, the most basic resources that are taken for granted by some, need to be taken into consideration. From food to kit to transport and access to medical care, the kind of everyday stuff that for normal people is, well, normal, is simply not available to many kids at grassroots level.

At its core, transformation faces a serious problem of access to resources, but the problem is not exclusive to grassroots level. Last year, Jacques du Toit published a fascinating thesis for the University of Cape Town, entitled Playing time of professional senior rugby players across all levels of South African rugby, 2007 –2012: implications for transformation.

As the name suggests, Du Toit meticulously analysed data for the Springboks, Super Rugby, Currie Cup and Vodacom Cup teams from 2007 to 2012 to look at how black players are represented across the board and how much playing time they get. Du Toit argues that measuring playing time is a far more effective measurement of transformation than simply counting the numbers because counting heads “allows for masking and creating a false impression of the true extent of transformation”.

Playing time is also important as opportunities and access to those opportunities is integral to player development. Playing time can therefore be used as a tool to measure a player’s opportunity to develop and was seen as the most effective way to measure the study. The findings of Du Toit’s study were unsurprising.

There were more white players across the board in all competitions, followed by coloured and black players. The pattern did not change at all from 2007 to 2012 at any level or in any competition. The study found that based on the ratio of playing numbers versus playing times, 54% of the situations were equally represented, 21% of the situations were overrepresented and 25% were underrepresented and there are no prizes for guessing who benefitted from the overrepresentation.

Du Toit states that “based on the total percentage playing numbers, logic suggests that if players are equally represented then the total percentage playing numbers should equal percentage playing time”, which is not the case. That didn’t happen.

In all competitions across all seasons, white players were overrepresented 46% of the time, black players were never overrepresented and coloured players were overrepresented in 17% of the situations.

Now, there could be a myriad of reasons for player X playing more than player Y. Sport doesn’t always lend itself to be so brutally statistical and for it to happen once could simply be an anomaly. However, it happened continuously across six years. That’s a trend and to ignore the trend would be an insult to those who are at the short end of it.

Looking exclusively at the Springboks, white players played more than expected, whereas black players were underrepresented while the Vodacom Cup had the most consistency. What is interesting about the Vodacom Cup, though, is that when 2007 and 2012 are compared in terms of representative squad numbers, the percentage of white players playing increased for all but three teams. The Free State saw white players drop from 83% to 77%, Griffons decreased from 85% to 82% and South Western Districts from 59% to 45%.

These statistics are important because we can argue until the cows come home about the black player needing to grow (he does) and grassroots transformation needing to be implemented and executed better (it does), but if the players who are in the system are not given equal opportunities this should be a cause for concern.

Professional sport is not all smooth sailing. It will chew you up and spit you out with absolutely no regard for who you are or where you come from. Since the study was published, there have been some changes and the South African Rugby Union (Saru) have introduced more stringent quotas in some competitions, but we cannot deny that as a whole, transformation has failed and continues to fail. If Saru want to address the failure, perhaps they should start assessing why those lucky enough to make it into the system often go missing. DM

Photo: South Africa’s Bryan Habana (C) tackles New Zealand’s Jerome Kaino (L) during the Rugby Championship test match between South Africa and New Zealand played at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, 04 October 2014. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options