Belfast Telegraph

Home Sport Rugby

The Big Question: Why are there so few black players in the South African rugby team?

By Michael Savage

Why are we asking this now?

Because as everyone looks forward to tomorrow's World Cup final in Paris, only two of South Africa's 15 players who take the field against England will be black – that from a country in which nearly 90 per cent of the population is black or mixed race.

It will come as a blow to those who had hoped that things had changed after the country's World Cup victory in 1995. Pictures beamed around the world of Nelson Mandela wearing the green and gold Springbok jersey and embracing the team's captain, Francois Pienaar, were meant to signal the beginning of a new Rainbow Nation, and a change to a team that better reflected the country's population. Yet the Springbok side is still dominated by white players. The president of the South African Rugby Union, Oregon Hoskins, has publicly acknowledged that the pace of change has been far too slow.

Why are there so few black players?

The reasons are partly historical. The game came to South Africa from England in the 19th century and was adopted by Afrikaners, becoming part of the Afrikaans culture. Since the end of apartheid, though, many black people have become involved in running the sport in South Africa. "It isn't the case that those controlling South African rugby are all white – that changed long ago," says Andy Colquhoun, editor of the SA Rugby Annual. "The problem has been in getting the top black talent to emerge at the elite level. Those players who have been lucky enough to emerge, like Brian Habana, have not done it through positive action schemes and investment, but either by being spotted at the provincial level or by being lucky enough to come from a family that can send them to a rugby playing school."

It is not the case that black people do not play the sport in South Africa. In fact the latest statistics suggest that more than half of the players in the lower echelons of the game are non-white. The most successful under-19 and under-21 sides are dominated by black players. The problem has been that this success by black players in the lower levels and junior grades of the sport has not translated into representation at the elite level. In fact, the higher the level of rugby, the fewer black players seem to be on the field.

Who's to blame?

The country's rugby chiefs were hauled in front of the parliament's sports committee last summer to explain why there were still so few black players representing their nation 13 years after the supposed end of apartheid. They were chastised over failures to properly implement rugby in schools and local clubs and also for not fully committing to the aims of altering the racial make-up of the South African team by including black players in the squad, only to leave them on the bench. And it has not been the case that the authorities have failed to supply funds to help sort out the problem, but many in South Africa have questioned the way in which that money was spent.

It is widely accepted that the team's head coach, Jake White, has picked the team on merit alone and he has escaped significant criticism for that. "The problem for whoever succeeds Jake White will be just the same problem that Jake White has had," says Andy Colquhoun. "There simply aren't enough world beating black South African players, just like there aren't enough world-beating white South African players."

What's the situation in other sports?

South African cricket has suffered similar problems to rugby. Apart from strike bowler Makhaya Ntini, few black players manage to hold down a place in the starting XI.

It certainly isn't the case that sport is not played by poorer, black South Africans. Football is often the game of choice, and its popularity is reflected in the fact that most of South Africa's national football squad is black. South Africa has produced stars like Blackburn's prolific front man, Benni McCarthy.

What can be done?

Quota systems have been used in the past, but have not shown the results that were hoped for. There have also been a lot of unwritten targets, which have failed to materialise into an international rugby team more reflective of South Africa's population.

President Mbeki has thrown his support behind the side during the World Cup and asked the country to do the same, but things will change after the final whistle goes tomorrow. Politicians are now taking the plunge and laying down tough targets to try and boost the number of black players. The aim is to have black players making up two thirds of the team from as soon as next year.

Will strict quotas work?

It will depend partly on whether a country so used to being among the leading nations of the sport will tolerate a dip in performance that would probably come about as a result of pursuing positive discrimination. President Mbeki has said in the past that if losing games is the necessary result of boosting the number of black players, then that is a price that will have to be paid. Though there may be plenty of tolerance of defeats as a result of positive discrimination initially, how long it will last is open to question. Also, tough selection decisions will have to be made, with some unlucky white players left out of the team for reasons other than their rugby ability.

Will things change this time?

There have been numerous broken promises to increase the number of black players in the side. But according to Andy Colquhoun, this time could be different. "Political patience has reached breaking point and there seems to be the necessary will for things to change after this World Cup. Now, pretty much everyone in South Africa believes that the team should be transformed. The debate has now turned to the speed and method of how to bring this change about."

Should we be hopeful about the future?

It is positive that South Africa's star man is lightning fast winger, Brian Habana. He is the tournament's leading try scorer and took England to pieces in the first encounter between the two teams a month ago, helping his side to run out emphatic 36-0 winners on that occasion. If he touches down again in the final, he will also hold the record for the most tries ever by a player in a World Cup.

But to concentrate on the scintillating wing play of one man would be to gloss over the bigger problems that are so evident in the picture of South Africa's rugby union side. At least Habana could act as the role model needed to convince up and coming non-white players that they can make it to the top of the sport.

Will the South African rugby team ever have more black players?


* At youth level, there are many black players beginning to come through

* There is now real political will to transform the team, with targets being introduced next year

* With star winger Brian Habana playing so well, he could act as a role model for non-white players in the future


* If South Africa win the World Cup, it will be hard for supporters to accept a dip in performance

* Rugby authorities have proved that they are unable to tackle the problem of a lack of black players

* The coach should be allowed to pick a team on merit alone. Picking someone for their skin colour will just cause more problems

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph