Jon Cardinelli

Behind the black ball

Transformation in SA Rugby magazine Transformation in SA Rugby magazine

The Springboks will struggle to field a side that is 50% black at the 2019 World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Consider the state of South African rugby back in 2014. Bryan Habana, Cornal Hendricks and Beast Mtawarira were the only players of colour to start more than five Tests for the Springboks across the 13-game season.

Coach Heyneke Meyer was crucified by the less-informed sectors of the media and public. A closer look at the makeup of the five Super Rugby teams, however, provided an explanation for the slow rate of transformation at national level.

A total of 191 South African players were used over the course of the 2014 tournament. Forty were players of colour (21%). Only 20 of those 40 players started more than five games for their teams; 11 of those 20 players started on the wing.

The joke about the Springboks changing their name to the Seagulls has been made time and again on account of the side’s predominantly white makeup and black wings. Chester Williams was the only player of colour on the park when the Boks won the 1995 World Cup, while Habana and JP Pietersen were on the wings for the relatively white Bok sides that started at the 2007, 2011 and 2015 global tournaments.

To be fair, those teams were a reflection of the South African Super Rugby sides.There is ample evidence to suggest that not enough has been done to develop black players in other positions over the past two decades. It certainly came as no surprise when SA Rugby put its foot down in 2014 and implemented a ‘Strategic Transformation Plan’ aimed at boosting black player numbers across the board.

So, how have the franchises and the Boks fared on this front in the ensuing three seasons? How close is SA Rugby to realising its goal of fielding a national side that is 50% white and 50% black (black African and coloured) at the 2019 World Cup, a tournament that is only 18 months away?

Some progress has been made when one considers that six players of colour started more than five Tests across the 13-game season in 2017 – an improvement on the three that started in 2014. That said, an analysis of the Super Rugby sides reveals that the black player base – more specifically the black players who have received sufficient opportunities to grow and develop – is still worryingly small. At this point, the odds are against SA Rugby fielding a Bok side in 2019 that is 50% white, 50% black and 100% selected on merit.

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South Africa has an abundance of talented black rugby players, many of whom have already made their mark at Super Rugby level. S’bu Nkosi, Makazole Mapimpi, Dillyn Leyds, Warrick Gelant and Curwin Bosch are just some of the youngsters who set the 2017 tournament alight. Of course, when one starts to realise that many of these players will be vying for the same positions at national level in the years to come, one begins to understand the enormity of the challenge facing the national coach.

Black inside backs and forwards, especially those who boast several seasons of experience and start regularly for their Super Rugby sides, are in relatively short supply. This may appear an outrageous claim to make when one considers that Elton Jantjies, Siya Kolisi and Mtawarira are household names after their exploits over the past few years. And yet, when one casts an eye down the team lists, it becomes clear that depth is a problem in these positions.

A total of 79 players of colour featured across South Africa’s five franchises between 2009 and 2013. Fifty-four were backs (38 were used at wing or fullback), while a mere 25 were forwards. Again, one needs to take a closer look to appreciate the severity of the situation. Ten of the 25 forwards who featured across those five seasons were used sparingly, garnering 43 caps and only 10 starts between them.

Some have managed to come through since then – Bongi Mbonambi has been a regular starter at Super Rugby level since leaving the Bulls for the Stormers. Others, like Hilton Lobberts (the one-time Bok who has been in the wider Cheetahs squad for some time), Bandise Maku (Bulls), Marvin Orie (Bulls and Lions), MB Lusaseni (Lions) and several others struggled to establish themselves in a starting capacity during that period.

Back in 2014, the black Super Rugby player pool was problematically small. The Bok coach had 40 black players at his disposal, and only half those players had been given a fair amount of game time at their franchises.

That number failed to improve in 2015 after most of the local teams ignored SA Rugby’s request for greater black player representation at Super Rugby level. In the wake of the 2015 World Cup – which saw eight players of colour selected in the 31-man Bok squad and only three black players starting in the semi-final against New Zealand – SA Rugby president Oregan Hoskins slammed the franchises in question. Forty out of  197 players used in the 2015 Super Rugby tournament were black (20%), and only 22 of those 40 started more than five games for their teams.

Predictably, there was an increase in numbers in 2016 when the Kings from the Eastern Cape rejoined the tournament (an appreciable spike from 40 to 70). And yet the overall black player representation in the tournament was still unacceptably low at 29% (SA Rugby set the bar at 35% that season).

The Bulls, Cheetahs, Lions and Sharks favoured predominantly white squads over the course of the competition. Six black players started more than five games for the Bulls, while five did the same for the Sharks, four for the Cheetahs and four for the Lions. The Kings and Stormers gave seven black players similar starting opportunities. Still, when one considers all the players who had been ‘backed’ as a group – by now you may have concluded that even five starts is too few over a regular season that spans 15 matches – 23 were backline players and just nine were forwards. Incredibly, the national coach was still expected to pick a match 23 that was 35% black.

The 2017 Super Rugby tournament witnessed some progress in the sense that 38% of the South African players on display were black. A closer look reveals that the Cheetahs and the Sharks were the only sides to show a slight year-to-year improvement with regard to the five-game starter parameter. Backs comprised 62% of the South African collective (21 out of 34 players).

The South African Super Rugby teams and the Boks are expected to field teams that are 45% black in 2018. The franchises will need to alter their selection policies significantly for the Boks to realise their lofty transformation goals in the coming Test season, and in 2019.

The Cheetahs and Kings met in two Pro14 derbies earlier this year. The central franchise boasted six players of colour in the starting side on both occasions, while the Kings opted for six in the first game and seven in the second.

The Bulls, however, included 12 players of colour in their final Super Rugby squad of 38, while the Lions confirmed that 11 such players are in their official group of 40. Both teams look set to face the same old transformation struggles, with six outside backs in the Bulls’ squad and four in the Lions’. How are those teams going to meet the 45% requirement on a regular basis?

Given all that has – or rather, hasn’t – happened at Super Rugby level since 2014, one struggles to see how the Boks will travel to the World Cup next year with a side that is 50% white, 50% black and 100% selected on merit.

Seventy-three of the 107 black players (68%) who featured between 2014 and 2017 won fewer than 15 starts for their franchises. Experienced teams win World Cups, and while the Boks do have a few seasoned black veterans at their disposal and some supremely talented youngsters coming through the ranks, the vast majority of the black players in the Super Rugby tournament haven’t been backed or developed to the point where they can be considered battle-ready for Test rugby.

This certainly needs to change sooner rather than later. Real transformation is about development, not window-dressing.

Greater attention needs to be paid to the development of black forwards, regardless of the targets of 2019. Some progress has been made when one considers that only 25 players of colour featured in forward positions between 2009 and 2013. However, more needs to be done to strengthen the depth of the player pool, increase the competition and, ultimately, ensure that the national coach has the right sort of selection headache in years to come.

BACK THREE 43 9 8 26
MIDFIELD 9 2 3 4
HALFBACKS 14 1 1 12
14 3 3 8
LOCKS 8 0 0 8
FRONT ROW 19 2 2 15
TOTAL 107 17 17 73

– This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine. The April 2018 issue is on sale Monday, 19 March.


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