Boks can transform and win

Reward form and skill and rugby will be transformed, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.

Cheslin Kolbe’s game-breaking ability demands a world stage when Ireland visit South Africa for the Test series in June.

Kolbe – be it in a starting role or introduced in the latter stages of the Test – is the most destructive stepper in South African rugby.

He is a fullback, first and foremost. He isn’t a scrumhalf and he shouldn’t be asked to convert to scrumhalf because of a perceived lack of size.

Hopefully, Springbok coach Allister Coetzee will reward Kolbe in the same way he did when coaching the Stormers.

Coetzee invested in Kolbe’s attacking brilliance and the player has every skill necessary to be as good in Test rugby as he is in Super Rugby.

To break back into the top two, the Springboks require a change culturally when it comes to selection. And I am not referring to race, but to player skills that favour those with the X factor and those capable of producing the magical moments that can’t be coached.

SA, in the Heyneke Meyer era, did the same old – and got the same old result against the All Blacks, which was to come second in seven of eight Tests.

Kolbe, Lions centre Lionel Mapoe and Lions flyhalf Elton Jantjies are running red-hot in this year’s Super Rugby. They simply have to be picked.

Mapoe and Jantjies have never played better. Give them a chance because they are the best in their respective positions.

Kolbe has made an impact for three seasons. He saved the Stormers an embarrassing away defeat against tournament newcomers, the Sunwolves, when he tore the defence apart because of his footwork. Yet too many considered and informed rugby commentators and analysts continue to doubt his Test potential because of his supposed lack of bulk and size.

Breyton Paulse fought this rugby prejudice his entire career. So too, former Stormers fullback Gio Aplon, whose Test career opportunities were limited because of perceptions that big is better translated to fact.

The Springboks have to transform, in selection and in approach. Transformation should be non-negotiable in the context of the sport and society. The prejudice that black weakens a Springbok team must be beaten to death. Ditto the prejudice against players gifted with hand speed, footwork and vision for space and attack. If not now, then when?

New Zealand’s star Super Rugby backline player this season has been 20-year-old Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie. He will get selected in the All Blacks squad against Wales, but he physically is in no way superior to the likes of Kolbe.

The mindset in New Zealand is to focus on what the player can do. South African rugby and, specifically the Springboks, can only benefit from a similar mindset.

Quota is an awful word in the context of our sport. Since our reintroduction to international sport in 1992, black players have been branded as quota selections, the stereotype being that their selection weakens the team’s chance of winning.

This is another prejudice that no longer can be accommodated in our sport or our society. It is nonsense and it irks me to hear politicians and administrators promoting transformation at the expense of winning.

Springbok rugby can transform and win. The black players who symbolise transformation are good enough to play for the Springboks because they are the best. It’s about belief and opportunity; the player’s ability and an investment in what the player can do and not supposedly what won’t be delivered.

The South African Rugby Union and South African government’s sport ministry have made it public that the Springbok team will field eight black players in a starting XV as a tangible change in yet another transformation charter.

All this has done is undermine every black player whose form in this year’s Super Rugby competition warrants Test selection. A Springbok team selected on form could include an all-black front row, a black loose forward, two black halfbacks, a black midfielder and an all-black back three.

A Springbok team, picked exclusively from Super Rugby, could have 10 black players in the starting XV – and it would be because of performance.

How crass that these players would then be labelled as privileged and the product of transformation targets and charters. How bloody awful.

Ditto the feeling for those overseas-based players who could be prejudiced because of a belief that they lack patriotism and have opted for cash over country.

Seven South African players started in Montpellier’s European Challenge Cup final triumph against Harlequins.

Take the best of what is overseas and combine it with the best playing here and reward form and skill and the Springboks will be transformed like never before.

And it won’t constitute sacrificing Test victories to achieve this transformation, because a transformed Bok team will in no way be weaker than the Boks who lost to Japan in the 2015 World Cup, or those Boks who lost to Argentina in SA and lost to Wales, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

Photo: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images