The Springboks dramatic loss to Japan at the Rugby World Cup over the weekend may be great news for Japanese rugby, and also for the competition itself, as the competition needs upsets such as this, but it could be a point from which South African rugby never recovers.
First of all credit to Eddie Jones for masterminding the victory over the side he helped lift the World Cup in 2007. As he said there is only one way that Japan can play, due to their technical, experience and size limitations. However he instilled discipline into their game and had clearly worked on basic skills; their handling at times was truly sublime. Jones has always been a great coach and this writer for one has often asked whether Australia truly appreciated what they had when he was in charge of the Wallabies.
Even if South Africa recovers from this defeat and goes on to win the Rugby World Cup, it is guaranteed the Springboks will never be the same. Heyneke Meyer is almost guaranteed to be looking for another job win or lose.
The one thing this defeat revealed was that the Springboks undoing is the fact that the squad is simply too old, a squad picked on reputation rather than form. It had nothing to do with colour.
Unfortunately racism is a word being bandied about as the reason for the loss. Before the Springboks even left South Africa the team was embroiled in a race row.
Following three defeats in the Rugby Championship and finishing last the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) called for Meyer to be sacked, labelling him a racist for his team selections. It claimed that five black players, supported by two white teammates, had claimed that they were being left out of the team because of the colour of their skin. Accusations that not surprisingly were strenuously denied by Meyer.
It is worth noting that in 2007 South Africa came last in the Tri-Nations, as it was then, winning only one match. The difference was coach Jake White stated he wanted to give his second string players experience playing against Australia and New Zealand. There was a plan to White’s selection policy. Meyer opted to bring back ageing players from overseas and lost, with younger talent available at home he was always going to face criticism.
Just before the Springboks left for England the Agency for New Agenda, a fringe political party, applied for a court order to stop the team competing at the World Cup. The basis of their request being that the squad was too white. Their application was rejected at the High Court in Pretoria
Then what was already a delicate situation was exacerbated by the intervention of Peter de Villiers, the Springboks’ first black coach. He wrote in a newspaper column that, “In the lead-up to the Durban Test, when Meyer had to choose between [Jesse] Kriel and the fit-again Jean de Villiers, he duly dropped a player of colour on the wing [Cornal Hendricks] to accommodate the former. That decision took the country back to the late 80s, when blacks supported the opposing teams because of apartheid.”
Interesting that the newspaper even ran this piece as in de Villiers’ four years as Springbok coach between 2007 and 2011, he gave less caps to black players than his predecessor Jake White did in the same period; twelve as opposed to fifteen. So when he had the chance to champion the “men of colour” cause he failed to do so in any great way.
This is the sad thing about where South Africa is at the moment. It has had a quota system for over twenty years, a system that was meant to give athletes of colour a better opportunity to make it into national teams. Yet as many of those first athletes who were given that honour will tell you, as an athlete you know if you are good enough to be there, and whether you have been picked to meet a quota or are truly there because you deserve to be so.
Instead of doing away with the quote system altogether last year the South African Minister for Sport wanted to increase the quota of players of colour in the Springboks. He sat down when people then demanded if this was what was to happen for rugby then the same opportunities should be afforded to white footballers in the South African football team, Bafana Bafana.
It is not a simple situation after so many years of being given no opportunity at all, but twenty years on a whole generation has grown up with opportunities that their parents never had. As those athletes who benefitted from the quota system have said, by all means have a squad with a quota of players from different backgrounds, but come match day for the sake of the nation, a coach must always pick the best team.
There are many in South Africa who are taking aim at Heyneke Meyer for picking ageing old white players past their best; Victor Matfield 38 years, Fourie du Preez 33 years, Captain Jean de Villiers at 34 years of age and possibly Ruan Pienaar, Bismarck du Plessis both 31 and Jannie du Plessis and Schalk Burger 32 years of age; although Burger since his near death experience seems to be playing better than ever.
Many of those writing about the selection of these players say nothing about the selection of Bryan Habana 32 years old and a shadow of the player he was. JP Pietersen is only 29 but is he the best wing that South Africa could have picked? Tendai Mtawarira is 30, but is another one feels is still definitely worth his place in the side.
Meyer picked an old squad, that is his downfall. A player is past his best irrespective of the colour of his skin and if Meyer is to be judged it must be a general judgement, not one of black and white.
What is baffling is why these journalists, political parties and political groups are taking aim at Meyer. Why not lobby the people who appointed him to the top job? At the time of his appointment in 2012 the President of SA Rugby Oregan Hoskins, himself a man of colour, stated the appointment had the “unanimous support from the General and the Executive Councils of SARU.” Councils made up of men that reflect the image of the Rainbow nation.
These writers do not attack them because a lone target is a far easier target to hit.
South Africa will never achieve what it should on the sporting stage as long as militant minorities continue to push for teams meeting a criteria, rather than allowing the coach to pick what he thinks is his best team, and his job then judged on the results that follow. With this constant debate raging all around them it must be a distraction, and it is incredible they have achieved what they have. A credit to the athletes and the coaches for managing to shut out all and focus on their jobs.
“Sport has the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”
To all those detractors remember the words of Nelson Mandela a leader many would have been proud to have had as their head of state, “Sport has the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination. Sport is the game of lovers.” It is time South Africa heeded these words and let sport work its magic in society and the quota system was abandoned.
South Africans love their sporting teams and should rejoice in sport naturally breaking down barriers on and off the pitch. Then next generation should be earning their positions in teams on merit what ever the colour of their skin.