I had the great fortune of getting a fascinating look at the trials and tribulations of South African rugby post the World Cup and the start of a new coaching regime for the Springboks. On a recent holiday visiting my wife’s family in South Africa, I had the privilege of attending an excellent school match between Grey and Brandwag High Schools played in Port Elizabeth, followed by the luxury of a company box to watch the Southern Kings face up against the Lions at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth. The Kings may be the worst team in Super Rugby at the moment, while the Lions are arguably one of the best, if not the best South African side in the competition, making it a fairly one-sided contest which nevertheless highlighted the myriad issues facing the future development of rugby in one of its greatest heartlands. There is little doubt that South Africa is still a hotbed of rugby talent and will continue to be so for many years if not generations to come, the issue is more about the management of the game and player development especially once players leave the vibrant and dynamic school scene. What I saw on the playing fields at Grey High School on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Port Elizabeth in terms of support and organization would be the envy of many school setups around the world, especially in Canada.
My rugby Saturday in Port Elizabeth started off at Grey High School, where I was able to watch a schools’ match between the first XVs of Grey from Port Elizabeth and Brandwag from Uitenhage. The stands were packed with family, friends and schoolchildren and a festive and spirited atmosphere prevailed. The enthusiasm of the spectators both young and old was infectious and clearly inspired the players from both teams. The first half saw a very talented Grey side run in an unanswered 40 points. Clearly the better side, Grey’s execution and passing skills would be the envy of many a senior men’s’ squad. In terms of an entertaining rugby spectacle it was hard to beat and a glorious demonstration of free flowing attacking rugby.
The second half saw Brandwag make a spirited comeback and mount a relentless assault on the Grey defences which held admirably. Very much a game of two halves, Grey’s significant attacking skills in the first half were transformed into a solid defensive effort in the second. Brandwag’s efforts had to be commended as they dominated possession in the second half and certainly did not appear to be daunted by the imposing 40-point deficit they found themselves facing at the start of the second half. However, their execution in attack simply did not have the finesse of their Grey counterparts. Grey were able to hold their composure in defence and were clearly the more complete of the two teams, but then let’s face it they are ranked ninth in the current South African schools table. Brandwag were able to bag two solid tries to make the score line slightly more respectable at 45-12 for Grey by the time of the final whistle, and their never say die attitude was outstanding for the full eighty minutes.
After the match I had the opportunity to spend some time in the Grey clubhouse speaking to the coaching staff. They highlighted the challenges facing rugby in South Africa as a result of political pressures to transform the senior game in the country, particularly in terms of making it more representative. At the school level many successes have been made in this department and certainly in terms of the composition of the teams I saw there was a healthy representation of black and white players. In the past many accusations have been levelled that there is a danger of tokenism in terms of having black players make up the numbers. From what I saw at the schools’ levels, such accusations would appear to have little if any credibility. Grey’s black players were often the stars of the match and displayed some exceptional rugby prowess. On speaking to the coaches, the problem seems to be more at the senior levels. Once such players leave school many of them are not automatically snapped up by senior professional teams or their academies. Naturally they lose interest in the game and without the financial or peer support at home such talent is then lost to South African rugby. The few who do make it to the senior levels have bright futures but the coaching and management structures in South African senior rugby are currently not set up to develop such players effectively.
On top of this there is the problem that once you get to the senior levels the increasing political pressure for transformation in South African rugby is starting to get in the way of the natural development of a strong and diversified player base. The coaches I spoke to rolled their eyes as they outlined rules likely to come into effect where at levels such as Super Rugby and more critically for the Springboks, the color make up of a South African side on the field at any given time has to have a certain numerical balance. In essence coaches will soon have to sit with their calculators at the ready rather than the game plans and strategy notes worked out in practice. It will be less a question of are the right players on the field as opposed to are the percentages right in terms of color composition? In the critical last quarter of a match it begs the question as to how on earth coaches are to use their bench in terms of impact substitutions. As the debates have raged on this issue there is little doubt that the overall effect of this will be to demoralise black players as the issue of merit in a squad will always be brought into question, along with the fact that it will be difficult for South African teams to field their strongest sides. This problem will be particularly prevalent for South African teams in Super Rugby, as they try to manage the rigors of travel and injury over a long season.
This issue was brought to light in my next outing in Port Elizabeth that Saturday afternoon as I enjoyed corporate hospitality courtesy of my father in law’s son at the Nelson Bay Mandela Stadium to watch home side the Southern Kings take on Johannesburg’s Lions in Round 9 of this year’s Super Rugby competition. The Lions have arguably been the most exciting of the South African teams in this year’s Super Rugby competition as they were for much of last season. Playing an open and expansive game, they perhaps more than any other South African side have embraced the type of playing style that has brought New Zealand teams so much success in this competition. The Southern Kings on the other hand are arguably the worst team in the competition let alone South Africa, and their inclusion in this year’s tournament appears to have been a case of making up the numbers after the tournament was expanded to include a Japanese and Argentinian franchise.
After last year’s tournament the Lions were boasting some all star names in the shape of scrum half Faf de Klerk, Captain and number eight Warren Whiteley, fly half Elton Jantjies, flanker Jaco Kriel and for me one of the standout players of last year, winger Ruan Combrinck. Add to this in my opinion the best coach in South Africa for the last two years in the shape of Johan Ackermann and you are looking at a world class unit. The Southern Kings on the other hand boast plenty of enthusiasm but a player base that has few if any familiar names in it. However, to give the home side full credit they never looked like a team who felt that in reality they were completely outclassed by superior opposition. I, like many fully expected the score line to be a runaway for the Lions after only the first quarter but was surprised to see it only 21-5 for the visitors at half time. There was plenty of heart and courage on display by the home side despite relentless pressure from the Lions. The Kings would even go and score a well worked try of their own in the first half.
However, as the match wore on execution, superior fitness and organisation would see the Lions suffocate a valiant but ultimately poor Southern Kings side. The home team’s defence fell apart in the second half along with their discipline which had already shown significant cracks resulting in a yellow card in the first half. The Lions would go on to score seven superb tries with all star winger Ruan Combrinck scoring two of them. Despite a fairly shambolic second half the home side did restore some pride by the end of the third quarter by bagging a second well worked try. However, there were two different teams on the pitch for much of the second half, with the Lions clearly in a league of their own against a courageous but often inept opposition.
As we left the Stadium I couldn’t help but wonder of the Lions team, how many of their outstanding key players will get a shot at a Springbok call up as the national side start their annual campaign against a visiting Irish side in a month’s time. Given the pressure for transformation and the appointment of a new coach, it remains to be seen how objective South African selectors will really able to be this year. Many have argued that Lions Captain Warren Whiteley should get the Captain’s role but given the political pressure facing the selectors this is probably highly unlikely. Furthermore, how much of a chance will players like Ruan Combrinck, Faf de Klerk and Jaco Kriel get to be a part of the Springbok plans this year despite their obvious talent, given the pressure new Coach Alastair Coetzee will face to get his squad to represent the political demands being placed on the make up of this and future Springbok squads? If South African sides simply become a question of numbers and less of talent, then the future of South African rugby is likely to enter a stormy period. The end result of which will be a player drain as talented players who see no future in South Africa head overseas to ply their talents and ultimately play for their adopted countries. South Africans may get a costly demonstration of that come June as the Springboks face up against one of Europe’s best players this season in the shape of South African CJ Stander as he tours his homeland wearing an Irish shirt.
Like many I understand the need for transformation in South African sport and particularly in rugby, however, I would be saddened if it was done at the expense of producing a successful Springbok side. South Africans are passionate about their rugby and this starts as I saw at the grassroots level on school pitches around the country. The country boasts a phenomenal talent base in players that represent the full color spectrum of South African society, and that at the schools’ level is as representative as it could possibly be. It would be a shame if one of international rugby’s greatest heartlands was to lose its rightful place at the top table of Test rugby simply because of poorly managed and misguided political interference. South Africa has the potential to continue to be a rugby powerhouse and it’s our hope at the Lineout that it will be allowed to do so and that a very fragile and sensitive process can be handled in the best interests of players and supporters. As I witnessed on my Saturday afternoon in Port Elizabeth, South African supporters are some of the most passionate and generous our sport has to offer and I hope that they will be able to continue to celebrate the success of their teams on the global stage for many years to come. The next few years will probably be the most challenging South African rugby has ever faced and for the sake of this proud rugby nation we will all be crossing our fingers that they get it right!