Spare a thought this week for Teboho Mohoje.
The Springbok flanker just can’t get any game time it seems, because Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer refuses to back him on the field.
Mohoje’s case is not unique; many black South African rugby players have suffered the same fate.
They excel at provincial rugby, rise up the ranks and then get that call up to the Bok squad; it’s a proud moment that very quickly turns sour.
It turns sour when they find that they spend months warming the bench and carrying tackle bags, never really being given a shot to prove themselves.
When there is an injury to the white player above them in the squad, they find they are leapfrogged to a place on the bench or in the starting 15 by another white player who wasn’t even in the initial squad or a player who the coach has chosen to play out of position.
It happens over and over again and it’s time to start calling this behavior what it is.
It’s racism, plain and simple.
The Boks are playing Australia in the Rugby Championship on Saturday and Meyer announced his team just the other day.
Mohoje was not in the team – not even on the bench.
Two weeks ago, Mohoje was left out of the Springbok squad to face Argentina, in the Boks’ second test of the championship. Instead an ageing white player making a comeback was picked when he wasn’t even in the initial squad.
This selection from Meyer prompted Archbishop Desmond Tutu to write an open letter to the Cape Times.
In it he criticised the SA Rugby Union (Saru) for the “tortoise pace” at which transformation is taking place in the national team.
Tutu said it was “particularly hurtful” to see the selection of black players as “peripheral squad members never given the chance to settle down and earn their spurs”.
Tutu said the exclusion of Mohoje from the squad two weeks ago was the most recent example of the lack of transformation in the sport.
“The next in line for a starting berth, he was leapfrogged into the team by a paler player,” Tutu wrote. “Of course, Juan Smith is a fantastic player and by all accounts a very decent South African. It’s not his fault he’s been selected; it’s his dream,” Tutu wrote. “But spare a thought for Oupa. And he’s not the only one.”
While we are talking about racism, can I just point out that Mohoje’s nickname, “Oupa”, to which Tutu refers, was given to him by a white high school coach because the coach couldn’t pronounce his name, and clearly didn’t feel like he should make an effort to learn.
As things turned out, Smith was rather anonymous in the test against Argentina, and even though he was selected to tour Australia and New Zealand with the Bok team, he declined, saying that he needed to be match fit.
But if he wasn’t match fit, why was he selected in the first place?
I assumed this was Mohoje’s shot to get a start in the number 7 jersey.
But Smith’s withdrawal from the squad created an opening for Lions flanker Warren Whitely, who was jettisoned to a spot on the bench while Mohoje is not in the match day squad at all.
The number 7 jersey has been handed to Marcel Coetzee, who is now playing out of position, and the place on the bench has gone to Whitely.
What does Mohoje have to do to get a game?
There are many pundits out there defending the selections.
They argue that the Springboks want to play two fetchers against Australia and that Whitely offers wider cover on the bench in a range of positions, but it seems the issue is really that black players are not being given their opportunities to “earn their spurs”, to use Tutu’s words.
So let’s talk about Mohoje
Struggling with injuries in 2012 after high school, Mohoje almost gave up rugby, but Shimlas coach Michael Horak pulled him back in.
Mohoje would go on to shine in the Varisty Cup in 2013, being named player of the tournament and making history as the first black player to captain the Shimlas rugby team.
He was also named Free State club player of the year for 2013.
He then moved up into the Free State Cheetahs 2014 Super Rugby squad, earning seven caps.
Mohoje took his opportunity and scored a great try against the Canterbury Crusaders in Bloemfontein.
“It just saw [Crusaders fullback] Israel Dagg turn his back and I decided to back myself,” he told Supersport.com.
Well at least Mohoje has got his own back, because nobody else seems to.
Cheetahs coach Naka Drotské described him as “a player of the future” during the Super Rugby season, and then Meyer came knocking to call him up to the Bok squad.
“I’m really excited by Oupa,” Meyer said. “I even said to him I think he’s good enough to play and I want to give him a chance against Scotland.
“He is big and strong and is excellent in the lineouts. I think he can be a great blindside flank – he’s more or less the same build as Willem [Alberts] and I want to see what he can do when he comes on.”
The South African rugby press was skeptical. Influential rugby writer Mark Keohane effectively called Mohoje’s selection tokenism on Twitter, and when The Con challenged him on this, inferring that he was “part of the problem” going around calling black players tokens, he responded with some kind of argument about merit, as if he can’t even see the systemic racial problems in South African rugby.
Others scribes called it an “interesting” selection and a “surprise” selection, and stories followed about Mohoje’s rapid rise from the “dusty streets” of Qwa Qwa.
In the end, Mohoje came on for the last 15 minutes of the game against Scotland. And that was the last opportunity he got.
Since then, Smith has been picked ahead of him after not even being in the initial squad, and now Coetzee is being played out of position and the unfortunately named Whitely, considering the circumstances, has leapfrogged him for a spot on the bench.
So let’s get down the heart of the matter here – Meyer doesn’t back black South Africa rugby players.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the stats, which show that Meyer is sacrificing the Springbok careers of black South African rugby players because he is determined to give ageing white Springbok one last shot at Rugby World Cup glory.
Mohoje (24), Lwazi Mvovo (28), Juan de Jongh (26), Trevor Nyakane (25), S’bura Sithole (24) and Siya Kolisi (23) are just some of the black Boks who have been forced to take a backseat.
Disagree? Consider these statistics for a minute. Meyer has been Springbok coach for 29 tests. In those 29 tests he has picked 11 black players in his starting 15.
They are Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen, Tendai Mtawarira, Zane Kirchner, Juan de Jongh, Gio Aplon, Guthrö Steenkamp, Bjorn Basson, Lwazi Mvovo, Damian de Allende and Cornal Hendricks.
Of these eight, De Allende and Hendricks are the only two to receive their first Springbok cap from Meyer.
Jake White capped Habana and Steenkamp in November 2004, while Pietersen received his call-up from White in September 2006.
The rest were all capped by Peter de Villiers: Mtawarira in June 2008; Kirchner in July 2009; De Jongh, Aplon and Basson in June 2010; Mvovo in November 2010.
In Meyer’s three years in charge of the Springboks, black rugby players on average have received 4.2 caps, and just 0.9 caps as starters.
What about their white team-mates?
In those three years white rugby players on average received 7.28 caps and 4.4 as starters.
That’s a massive difference.
Meyer has capped 30 new Springboks in his 29 tests in charge, but only six of those 30 have been black.
By comparison, De Villiers capped 31 new Springboks in his four-year reign, 12 of whom were black.
White capped 34 new Springboks in his four-year reign and 15 of them were black.
But Meyer has capped only six black rugby players out of 30 in three years.
They are Nyakane, Kolisi, Mohoje, Hendricks, De Allende and Elton Jantjies.
These six have earned 24 caps in three years, however only Hendricks four caps and De Allende’s two caps were as members of the starting 15.
Nyakane has four caps (all off the bench), Kolisi has 10 caps (all off the bench), Mohoje has one cap (off the bench) and Jantjies has two caps (off the bench).
Of the other black players who played under Meyer, Steenkamp has earned 14 caps (just four as a starter), Mvovo has earned five caps (three as a member of the starting 15), De Jongh has earned four caps (two as a starter), and Aplon has earned just one cap as a starter under Meyer.
So unless you are Habana (25 caps under Meyer), Pietersen (12 caps under Meyer), Mtawarira (25 caps under Meyer) or Kirchner (15 caps under Meyer), it’s pretty difficult to get a start in the Springboks if you are black.
But white players who were capped for the first time by Meyer have had no problem racking up their test caps.
Coetzee has got 17 caps (nine as a starter), Eben Etzebeth has 24 caps (22 as a starter), JJ Engelbrecht has 12 caps (nine as a starter), and Willie le Roux has 16 caps (15 as a starter).
As a friend said to me on Facebook, “some players are born ready to start for the Springboks and others are not trusted. It’s right there in front of you.”
In the press, Meyer waxed lyrical about having to give the young players he had selected a chance to prove themselves. There just haven’t been any young black players getting those opportunities.
But let’s move on to the ailing white veterans of the Boks. Victor Matfield (36), Bakkies Botha (34), Juan Smith (33), Schalk Brits (33), Fourie du Preez (32), Schalk Burger (31), Jaque Fourie (31), Ruan Pienaar (30) and Morné Steyn (30) have all been brought back into the fold at the expense of younger players trying to make their name in Springbok rugby.
Of these players, only Matfield and Du Preez actually deserve their spots in the squad.
The majority of these veterans earned their reputations as part of White’s 2007 World Cup-winning team, and it seems that Meyer believes the only way he can win the World Cup in 2015 is with this same crop of players.
From the 2007 World Cup final squad, only Habana, Pietersen, Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Matfield, Du Preez and Pienaar still deserve to be playing for the Springboks.
Jean de Villiers was injured early in the tournament, and although he has lost some pace over the years, he is still good enough to make the team.
But Botha, Steenkamp, Brits, Smith, Fourie, Burger and Steyn should have been put out to pasture long ago, and the fact that they are even being entertained as potential World Cup squad members for next year suggests a certain amount of desperation from Meyer − never mind the knock-on effect this policy of bringing back vets has on defeating transformation when players like Smith get selected above Mohoje.
The stats tell the story.
Mayer doesn’t back black South Africa rugby players and he is sacrificing the Springbok careers of some of our most promising rising stars.
So spare a thought for Mohoje, but also spare a thought for Sithole, Mvovo, De Jongh, Nyakane and Kolisi.
Spare a thought for every black rugby player who has to fight an uphill battle in a systemically racist sport.
The fact that some black players make it to the top of the sport is a miracle considering the hurdles they have to overcome.
So when Habana runs out on to the field on Saturday to become the first black South African to reach 100 caps for the Springboks, think of all those black players who are struggling to just get on to the field for just one cap.