South Africa's Super Rugby franchises have failed to transform sufficiently over the past five years. This has in turn hampered the transformation of the national team. JON CARDINELLI reports.
During his tenure as Springbok coach, Jake White often pointed to the flaw in the South African system, as did his successor Peter de Villiers. Players of colour are in short supply and do not receive enough opportunities at Super Rugby level. Knowing this, how then can a national coach select a team that is reflective of South Africa's demographics?
Two players of colour represented the Boks in the 2007 World Cup final in Paris. Four were in the match 22 for the 2011 World Cup quarter-final in Wellington. Both teams were picked on merit, giving South Africa the best chance of victory in each match.
The make-up of those teams was indicative of the lack of transformation at the lower levels. The question that should have been asked post-2011 was how South African rugby planned to boost transformation before the 2015 World Cup.
In early 2014, Saru's high-performance manager Rassie Erasmus confirmed that a new player monitoring system had been implemented with the aim of ensuring that more age-group players graduate to professional rugby. Erasmus is confident that this system will aid transformation in the long run, and that fewer players of colour will slip through the cracks.
The bad news is the system was only recently implemented, and it could be years before Super Rugby teams, and most importantly the Boks, enjoy the benefits. In the interim, the Bok side will battle to field a truly transformed team, that is, more black players on merit.
The statements made by White and De Villiers regarding transformation are more relevant than ever. Indeed, both coaches were under pressure to select more black players, as is the current man at the helm, Heyneke Meyer.
It's important to realise how broken the system was, and how long it could take for the new process to produce results.
For now, demands for greater transformation at the highest level are grossly unfair. The stats on players competing in Super Rugby between the years of 2009 and 2013 support this assertion, and it's unlikely that there will be a dramatic change before the 2015 World Cup.
Over the course of the past five Super Rugby seasons, a total of 79 players of colour have featured across South Africa's five franchises. 54 were backs, while a mere 25 were forwards.
South Africa has long struggled to produce black forwards of substance. There have been a few, with the likes of Gurthrö Steenkamp and Beast Mtawarira featuring in some big wins for the Bulls and Sharks, not to mention the Boks. Siya Kolisi's rise at the Stormers has been rapid, but again, this is more the exception than the rule.
And that figure of 25 doesn't tell the whole story. Ten of those players have just 43 caps between them.
79 players of colour have featured across South Africa's five franchises. 54 were backs, while a mere 25 were forwards
It's fair to say that youngsters like Bongi Mbonambi and Tera Mtembu will add to their respective tallies in the years to come, but what of fringe players like Fudge Mabeta, Jonathan Mokuena, Hilton Lobberts, and Mpho Mbioyzo who have battled to break through, despite spending lengthy spells at their respective franchises? It should also be noted that of the 43 caps accumulated by these 10 fringe players, 10 were in a starting capacity, and 33 were from the bench.
Of course, this is not to suggest that every one of these players had the ability to excel at Super Rugby level. And as Erasmus stressed when talking at a coaches symposium in January, this is the crux of the transformation matter.
A player's weaknesses and deficiencies need to be addressed before he arrives at senior level. Erasmus hopes that the new monitoring system will ensure that talented players receive assistance at an earlier stage of their development. The aim is to sharpen the youngster's strengths and eradicate his weaknesses. It's too late to play catch-up at Super Rugby level.
Erasmus cited a hypothetical example of a young black player who has the natural instinct and speed to be an effective fullback or wing, but is wanting in other areas of his game. If these deficiencies aren't addressed, the player will struggle to make the step up to senior rugby.
It's a fitting example considering what's transpired at Super Rugby level over the past five years. Of the 54 players who have featured in the backline, 38 have been used primarily as a wing or fullback. So few have gone on to establish themselves, as they have been found wanting in some area or another.
The implementation of a new system may bring more black forwards through and produce more complete backline players. But that process will take place gradually.
One need look no further than the recent Super Rugby team sheets for confirmation: 92 South African players were in action this past weekend; only 15 players of colour featured, and it should come as no surprise that nine of those players were back-three specialists.
There should be pressure on South Africa's Super Rugby sides and the national team to transform. However, that pressure has to be in line with the current resources and system in place. People, and indeed politicians, should keep that in mind when assessing the demographics of the Bok side later this year and in 2015.
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