Spend any amount of time pitch-side at junior matches played by “traditional rugby schools” in South Africa and you’re likely to be struck by the demographics of the players out there. Or maybe you’re not. Because, if you were, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a common sight. Somebody, anybody, would ask more often than not: how is this right?
No, this is not going to be some jibber-jabber, touching you on your white privilege as you scream into a void about how hard you worked so that you can send little David to a former Model C school. It’s an attempt to assess just why things keep going so badly wrong for South African rugby – and the demographics at school level are an integral part of that.
It would be foolish to pretend that the record 57-0 defeat the Springboks suffered at the hands of New Zealand over the weekend was entirely unique. Flip through the score books over the last 10 years and such instances of “lowest ever point” keep popping up. First ever losses to Japan and Italy, big losses to Australia and plenty of surprise losses to other teams are dotted throughout the years.
The reaction to the weekend’s defeat was, as always, emotional and reactionary. The coach must be fired. There must be a boycott. And, of course, the convenient “transformation is bad” scapegoat, despite black and white players being equally woeful.
Transformation remains deeply misunderstood. It certainly isn’t a means of side-lining white players – despite what box-ticking quota systems trumpeted by politicians might have you believe.
Transformation is certainly not just about making up the numbers of demographic representation. As we have seen with cricket, simply ticking boxes can actually be detrimental to quality of opportunity. Transformation is simply engaging with a broader talent pool and mapping out a pathway to success for players from all backgrounds. And if it were to be implemented properly, it could unlock a powerhouse of potential.
Out of all the schools in South Africa (primary and high school) less than 25% play rugby. The vast majority of those schools are primary – perhaps because at the most junior level there is no kicking for poles and a full-sized field is not required.
StatsSA puts the estimated number of South Africans aged between 10-19 years at just under 10-million. The gender difference is not too substantial, but these figures include children who do not go to school.
It’s fair to say, then, that rugby reaches a fraction of its potential audience at age group level. That reach is reduced even further at high-school level. According to the Department of Sport and Recreation’s statistics, just over 800 secondary schools in the country offer rugby.
It’s no wonder the bulk of Springboks come from a handful of schools. Or that for a black player to have a reasonable chance of success, they have to go to one of these so-called “rugby schools”.
Yet, that’s not too dissimilar from New Zealand. About 10 schools in the country account for almost a quarter of the players who have been capped internationally. But look at the overall data, and the numbers are a bit more spread out. More than 300 schools have contributed to the All Blacks over the years. For the South African players with data available the tally sits at just over 100.
A 2013 investigation by the New Zealand Herald found that in Auckland the top schools were spending upwards of AUS$50,000 (R486,000) a year on their first XVs. Some schools, who include foreign tours in their programmes, spent four times that amount. It’s not too dissimilar to the amount of money that’s being pumped into some of South Africa’s top “rugby” schools and the theme of old boys propping up schools financially transcends the continents, but the structures that allow kids from all backgrounds to reach the top are far more inclusive than South Africa.
Rugby in South Africa reaches a fraction of its potential player pool. Lack of facilities remain one of the biggest barriers but it’s certainly not an excuse. Cricket’s mini cricket mass participation programme has proven that it can make inroads to bridging those gaps – even if aspiring players still end up at these “traditional” schools.
Yet, the South African Rugby Union (SARU) seems mostly content to leave these things to government. TAG rugby is growing, but the pathway to progress is still limited, especially when it comes to progressing through the provincial schoolboy ranks.
How is a budding young rugby player from Khayelitsha, Langa, Gugulethu or any other township supposed to navigate these systems with precious little resources? Many parents from these areas simply cannot afford the time off work – or the transport – to take children to trials and subsequent training. The obstacles are a minefield.
Initiatives like Iqhawe Week hold some promise, but they are still bound to the same hindrances of accessing opportunity.
And so, here we are with a nadir on a loop. Every few years (or more recently months) the national rugby team is routed as administrators and fans sit back and wait for the next generation of greats to announce themselves.
But if the national team wants to strive for excellence routinely– as New Zealand does – they need to look no further than at how the country approaches inclusivity.
The economic situation of the two countries cannot be compared. Although poverty exists in New Zealand, it’s nowhere near the levels of South Africa, but the efforts being made to be inclusive are far more obvious in one compared to the other.
The New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) has a community plan which describes rugby as “part of the fabric of New Zealand society”, according to Brent Anderson, general manager of community and provincial rugby.
“We want people to grow up and have a love and passion for the game. The best way of gaining that is for them to be involved in it.”
So much so that some years ago, in the rugby stronghold region of Taranaki, the local rugby union took over a dairy farm to finance community rugby. An advisory group of local farmers and agricultural consultants came together to help operate the farm and offer employment to young rugby players. That project is still continuing successfully to this day.
Imagine for a second if a similar initiative was initiated in the rural Eastern Cape, where rugby poles are dotted around remote villages that don’t even feature on a map.
Also notable is New Zealand’s willingness to allow its indigenous people to lead the way when it comes to fostering the sport’s identity. Many South Africans will simply buy into the lazy narrative that rugby is “not part of black culture” – but that’s simply not true. As noted by sahistory.org.za:
“By the late 19th century some blacks had adopted rugby as an element of their identity. In 1896 a celebration was held in honour of H.C. Msikinya for his acceptance into Wilberforce University. At the party Msikinya listed his membership in the Rovers Rugby Football club amongst his various social accomplishments.
“Soon after White South Africans formed rugby’s first official governing bodies Black South Africans followed suit. In 1889 the whites-only South African Rugby Board was founded. Eight years later the South African Coloured Rugby Football Board was founded to organise and oversee club matches between Black South Africans at the regional level.”
Anyone who has ever driven through the Eastern Cape will tell you just how much of a rugby culture exists here. Yet, precious little is being done to ensure that the communities in these rural areas have the same access as their urban counterparts in the country’s richer provinces. Equally, many people who grew up in the Eastern Cape have moved to the Western Cape and Gauteng – and brought the rugby tradition with them. Yet, the desire to be inclusive is non-existent, something unfathomable in New Zealand.
It speaks to the power of sport that almost everything New Zealand rugby has come to represent can be traced back to its native people, the very same people who were being marginalised in other corners of world.
Even when it comes to the tender topic of a rugby jersey, New Zealand has put indigenous culture front and centre. Their traditional black jersey and silver fern was first worn by a Maori team. The fern is borne out of Maori proverb.
“Mate atu he tetekura, Ara mai he tetekura” – or as one chief dies, another rises to take their place. And, in context of the silver fern: as one frond withers and dies, another rises to take its place.
In South Africa, if you even dare mention that Springbok symbol might hold memories of oppression to some, you’d be lynched.
Even the haka itself is something the vast majority of New Zealanders know off by heart. Listen to the first few verses of the South African anthem being sung at certain venues and, well, you get the picture.
That’s not to say it’s all moonshine and roses outside of the sport. In normal society Maori do experience discrimination, but rugby has played a role in helping with unification. The inclusion of Polynesian immigrants in the sport has also changed the way the game is played, despite a fear of “white flight” from rugby starting as far back as 2000. Yet, Polynesian players redefined New Zealand rugby with some of the its brightest stars coming from the islands, despite these fears.
But not all immigrants are keen on rugby as a sport. With soccer now having overtaken rugby as the most popular sport in the Auckland region, NZRU made it a focus area in their “Vision 2020” strategy. Having identified migration as a possible reason for the decline, NZRU is actively looking to evolve the sport at junior level to encourage the immigrant Asian communities to engage. And it’s with good reason. The wider Auckland region provides one quarter of New Zealand’s rugby players. Of all the capped All Blacks, almost 25% have come from here.
Here on home soil, the excuse that “soccer is more popular” seems like an easy cop-out and instead of embracing immigrants, South Africa has a mayor accused of inciting xenophobia and that same mayor passing the buck to a minister. Oh, what we’d give for that “Rainbow Nation” slogan to actually come to fruition one day.
For the most part, rugby in South Africa remains deeply amateur. It is controlled by the status quo and cradled like the last bastion of supremacy. It’s a travesty that so much talent and potential is just waiting for an opportunity.
The task of South Africa becoming a powerhouse of rugby is not something a single body can tackle alone. They need the buy-in from the Department of Sport and Recreation and the Department of Basic Education to ensure facilities and equipment are rolled out, coaches are employed and programmes are implemented, nutrition is monitored and leagues are established that ensure regular, competitive fixtures for all schools.
It also requires buy-in from the unions. Being proactive in ensuring a child who grows up in a shack in Khayelitsha has the same chance of navigating the pathway to provincial trials as a kid from the suburbs will go a long way in broadening the talent pool.
Sport should also be seen as a way out of poverty – that should be the rule, not the exception.
For too long it’s been too easy to rely on exclusionary and outdated pathways to unearth talent. Until the structures are sorted out, everything will go to hell in a handcart every few years. DM
Photo: Sonny Bill Williams addresses the players huddle Bledisloe Cup Rugby Championship match, Australia Wallabies vs New Zealand All Blacks, Sydney, Australia. Saturday 19 August 2017. Photo: Paul Seiser / www.photosport.co.nz
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