Jake White says Sharks utility back S’bura Sithole is Springbok material, writes MARK KEOHANE.
White is convinced Sibusiso ‘S’bura’ Sithole is the success story of the South African Super Rugby season. The Sharks and former Springbok coach is also adamant Sithole is a Springbok in waiting and the kind of story South African rugby needs in a climate of indifference towards transformation.
‘First and foremost, S’bura is a bloody good rugby player. He will play for the Springboks; he will do so because of his rugby ability,’ says White. ‘But he is also black and South African rugby, at a national level, has to show that the claims of very good black players won’t be ignored.’
White, whose starting XV this season has regularly featured five players of colour (among them four ethnic black players), says there can be no excuse when it comes to transformation.
‘He is something special. I’d have no hesitation selecting him for the national squad. He is 23 years old and has wonderful possibilities. He is the good news story this country needs.’
White, the 2007 World Cup-winning coach, has only worked with Sithole in the past six months and he can’t believe the player was not a Sharks Super Rugby regular in 2013.
‘I was amazed he wasn’t rated by many within the Sharks structures. I heard horror stories about how he was treated and the lack of faith in his playing ability. He is the one player who in training stood out for me when I started at the Sharks and while he can play wing, I believe his best position is at outside centre.’
'He will play for the Springboks; he will do so because of his rugby ability' – Jake White
White selected Sithole at No 13 in a pre-season match against the Lions at Ellis Park. He excelled, scoring three tries and exhibiting all the qualities required of a player in that position.
Sithole started against the Lions at Ellis Park in the Super Rugby proper and won the Man of the Match award. Injuries to the Sharks’ first-choice wings meant a shift closer to the touchline for Sithole, but it was not because of any failings at outside centre.
‘There has always been a tendency in South African rugby to shift black players to the wing,’ says White. ‘A player could be a flyhalf and somehow he would end up on the wing. We’ve progressed in the past decade but not quickly enough.
‘I moved S’bura from wing to outside centre and Lwazi Mvovo from wing to fullback because of their qualities as rugby players. They possess the skills to be the starting options in a team that, after nine rounds, led the competition. These two guys can play and they are good enough to make a national squad.
‘In my coaching career I’ve taken pleasure from my selections and identification of talent and that is why I was surprised there was such an oversight with S’bura a year ago. This is not a case of wanting to fast-track a player because of his skin colour. It’s being blunt that he is a national investment because he is one of the best outside centres in the country. He is in no way inferior to a player like JJ Engelbrecht, who has had national opportunities as a wing and outside centre.’
Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer will start with Japan-based veteran Jaque Fourie in the June internationals, but White is of the view that Sithole is the successor to Fourie.
‘He’s proved himself in Super Rugby. He has played against some very good opposition and he has prospered. His understanding of attack is particularly impressive. He gets his hands through the tackle and his strength is he attacks the space. He understands the nuances of the game and has the functional intelligence to be influential on the defensive organisation of a backline.
‘He is only 23 and in his first season of Super Rugby, but he is a player who can make a significant contribution to the game in this country and the cause of transformation because he is an example that there are ethnic black players who are the best in their positions.’
Sithole is still learning, adds White, but that does not mean he is a development project.
‘He will improve every time he plays and the area of his game that has to – and will – get better is his distribution. His hands aren’t as soft in making the pass as I’d like them to be, and the mistakes he has made this season can be attributed to a lack of experience.
‘But the good things heavily outweigh any vulnerabilities in his make-up. He has a natural feel for the game, is intelligent and is constantly evolving and wanting to improve his understanding of the position and the game.
‘His work ethic is fantastic and it makes my job so much more enjoyable and it’s easier to work with a player whose enthusiasm matches his work ethic.
‘He is worth every investment and the most obvious example of just what quality of black player can be produced naturally through the schools system in South Africa. He comes from a strong schools rugby culture at Queen’s College and he has benefited from being in the SA Sevens squad.
‘In a season that has delivered many good things for the Sharks, Sithole’s return has been the most rewarding of those.’
White’s message to South African rugby bosses, especially in light of the criticism about the slow pace of transformation, is to invest in Sithole … not post-2015 but now. He is a breath of fresh air to the South African rugby landscape … not because he is black but because of how he plays.
SITHOLE ON …
WORKING ON HIS SKILLS
‘I did a lot of stuff with my hands during the pre-season because previous coaches said it was an area where I was lacking. So I took it upon myself to fix it because I thought it was something I could really improve on. I guess by doing that it opened up a gap for me to play centre.’
JAKE WHITE’S CONFIDENCE IN HIM
‘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. I think it’s something that has made a difference in the way I’m playing. There’s no fear. I can just run out there and express myself, so it’s been great working under Jake.’
PLAYING OUTSIDE CENTRE
‘I’m still learning how to play centre properly and am not at all perfect in the position.’
– This article first appeared in the June 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine