Transform through craft not colour

Transformation is in the quality of the player and not always in his colour, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.

At a time when the sports minister talks about black numbers and black playing percentages, let’s rather talk about performance.

At a time when the sports minister talks of transformation in a threatening tone, let’s talk about it as a good-news story in our rugby.

At a time when the sports minister again equates transformation to a numbers game, let’s equate transformation to the quality of performance.

Let’s talk about Sibusiso Camagu Thokozani Sithole, the 23-year-old Sharks outside centre and a product of Queen's College.

Sithole was brilliant against the Lions. He was the Man of the Match and his performance rightly earned rave reviews.

He is a rugby player who just happens to be black. For too long in this country black rugby players are seen first to be black. The rugby is an afterthought.

Sithole is a rugby player. Just like team-mates Lwazi Mvovo and Odwa Ndungane. That they happen to be black aids the development of the game in taking it to a greater audience, but being black is not what defines this trio, as just one example among the black players in Super Rugby.

They’re darn fine rugby players, who chose rugby as their preferred sport choice and were good enough to make a profession of their passion.

Sithole is a gifted rugby player who has an appreciation for the nuances of attack. He uses awareness to attack space and he uses instinct as much as he does structure.

He is a breath of fresh air to the South African rugby landscape, but not because he is black but because of how he plays.

One performance will not be the making of him and there is no guarantee he will play for the Springboks. He has the characteristics of a Springbok, but then so do many midfielders in this country.

Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie, Frans Steyn, Jan Serfontein, Juan de Jongh, JJ Engelbrecht and Paul Jordaan would all rank more immediate national choices than Sithole.

Sithole is good and that is what has to be applauded. He must be allowed to play and prosper without the necessity to want to fast-track him into a national set-up based on his skin colour. That would be a disservice to his pedigree as a player who impresses with his ability to play the game.

The politicians among sports administration and within government structures in this country conveniently play a numbers game to benefit a particular agenda. Rugby players just want to play a game.

There is a national election pending; hence the four-year focus on transformation in sport in South Africa; hence the talk of black-playing percentages at a national level.

What there should be is the celebration of performance because transformation is measured through opportunity and the consequent performance. No professional player wants a hand-out and no player wants to doubt his selection.

Jake White, as director of rugby of the Sharks, picked a starting XV that he felt best suited to defeating the Lions in Johannesburg. It was his view that Mvovo’s pace was unmatched as a fullback option, that JP Pietersen was unrivalled as one winger and that Ndungane’s experience in his 100th Super Rugby game was a necessity. It was also his view that Sithole, at outside centre, had X factor.

When White picked a teenager named Frans Steyn to debut on the wing against Ireland in Dublin in 2006 he boasted that Steyn would become one of the world’s best players.

Steyn was not white and Afrikaans speaking. He was just a brilliant young rugby talent. Similarly a youthful Schalk Burger, when White picked him to start in 2004 against Ireland.

White saw rugby players in 2004 and he sees rugby players today. It is one of his strengths.

The Sharks, in beating the Lions, consolidated their position as the leading team in this season’s Super Rugby competition. At least for now, given they are yet to travel abroad.

The Sharks were also the only South African team to win in the last fortnight with Steyn, Sithole, Mvovo and a host of forwards responsible for their victory.

There is no need for national despair because of indifferent Super Rugby performances from regions outside of the Sharks. The Springboks will be strong because of the player pool available to national coach Heyneke Meyer.

The failure of the Cheetahs and Stormers and the limitations of the Bulls and Lions, as Super Rugby play-off contenders, should not be confused with a national team or a national game in any sort of crisis.

Our rugby is not in crisis and transformation is happening.

Mvovo and Sithole, as an example, combining to win a game has more substance than forcing a coach to pick 10 black players who aren’t good enough to influence the outcome.

Transformation is in the quality of the player and not always in his colour.

Sithole and Mvovo, just by the way they play the game, transform the South African rugby landscape.

Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images