Transformation, that old “enemy of rugby”, has been roused from its hibernation. Last week Minister Fikile Mbalula announced after a meeting with provincial sports MECs that transformation targets had been moved to 60% black players for South African national teams. This was in response to an identified “lack of willingness in implementing transformation”, and follows a recent damning report about the state of transformation in South African sport.
Mbalula said these quotas would come into effect immediately, but it is still unclear how this will be implemented. Naturally, many white supporters, administrators and coaches who were hoping transformation’s state of slumber was permanent are now jumping up and down and crying foul.
It’s a pity the issue of player development in South African rugby is so locked up in these discussions of transformnation, but that is the legacy of our apartheid past.
Many think, understandably so, that transformation is a numbers game, and it’s easy to deduce this as we measure transformation by numbers. But, transformation is a game of trust.
I recently had a conversation with the Sharks’ director of rugby, Jake White, and the one word that kept coming up was “trust”.
White places great emphasis on the trust between the players and coaching staff. The Sharks coach is, in my view, a proponent of how we should view transformation not only in rugby but in all other of the country’s representative sports.
White believes in empowering players, and he has proved this time and again by backing players to play in unfamiliar roles. His decision to play Bryan Habana on the wing for the Springboks, when he had only a few caps at centre for the Lions, is a case in point.
There is no shortage of black players in the junior stages of South African rugby; many are leaders in their positions. Our junior teams sometimes have more black players on the field than white players.
However, somehow in the ascendency towards professional rugby, black players become lost in the rugby system. No one has been able to help explain this phenomenon but I think White has shown us the answer.
After high school, players presumably move to tertiary institutions and colleges. They play club rugby, in the Varsity Cup and in the Community Cup. But coaches at this level are predominantly old white players who are unwilling or unable to drive transformation in their teams. White is unlike these coaches − he understands that to get the best out of a player, there needs to be trust between the coach and his players.
Look at 23-year-old S’bura Sithole and the 27-year-old Lwazi Mvovo. White moved Sithole to outside centre from wing and Mvovo to fullback from wing in an attempt to get both players more involved in the game. He has shown trust in both players’ abilities and they have excelled in their new positions, with Lwazi capping a brilliant performance against the Lions by scoring a scintillating try, and Sithole delivered a man of the match performance that earned him rave reviews from Nick Mallett.
After the match, which the Sharks won 23-12, Sithole credited White and his coaching staff for his great form. “As a player, there’s nothing better than running out on to the field knowing you’ve got the full backing of the coaching staff,” Sithole said. “I think that’s something that has made a difference in the way I’ve played now.”
Unfortunately, as we have seen in the past 20 years, other South African coaches are less inclined to back and trust black players in their squads. They probably would have searched high and low for a replacement when they lost a centre of the calibre of Paul Jordaan, who was ruled out for a month with an ankle injury, but White merely backed the next player in line. He happened to be black.
Many laughed at White when he announced that Mvovo would play fullback against the Waratahs a few weeks ago.
White defended himself, arguing that he had full confidence in Mvovo’s ability to play fullback and insisting that he could one day play in that position for the Springboks. “There is no reason he can’t play fullback, and I’m quite excited,” said White.
Mvovo has 59 Super Rugby caps for the Sharks − why would people doubt Mvovo’s ability to play fullback? Because he is black? Well, guess who is laughing now.
Not only have Sithole and Mvovo performed for their coach, they are getting better and better with every game. This is not rocket science, it is man management.
Herein lies the answer to transformation − unless our predominantly white rugby coaches trust black players and give them a chance to perform, nothing will transform.
If these coaches can’t step up to the task, they need to move on and let more capable coaches take the reins. Trevor Nyakane and Raymond Rhule at the Cheetahs are players in similar positions to Sithole and Mvovo; they both need backing and trust to be in the reckoning for the Springboks, and unless they get this backing, they are unlikely to reach their full potential.
While many may view the issue of transformation in sport as uncomfortable and unnecessary, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that rugby players get equal opportunities to represent our national sport teams − especially when we consider our history of racial exclusion in sport and current systems that ensure the odds are loaded against black players.
It is quite clear that if we leave it up to the rugby fraternity we will get nowhere; there are not enough coaches like White in South Africa. Teams that embrace this way of thinking will not only gain a larger pool of quality players, they will also find favour with impartial South Africans – and, of course, the nation’s government.