It is a massive moment to be able to write about the rugby qualities of a transformed Springboks starting XV, which includes seven black players, when 20 years ago I was bemoaning a situation in which there weren’t even seven black players in Super Rugby, writes Mark Keohane.
Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber named seven black players in his starting XV to play the world’s top ranked team, the All Blacks, on Saturday. It is the most transformed starting XV in the history of Springbok rugby and it is a major milestone and cause for celebration among South Africans.
In 2003 I wrote a book: ‘Springbok Rugby Uncovered’. Chapter four is titled: Shades of Grey, Transformation in SA Rugby and it details just what a fight it was for South African rugby and, in particular, Springbok rugby to transform.
To fully appreciate just how the Springboks of 2021 have transformed, I want to take you back to 2001 in the week the Springboks played the All Blacks in Cape Town and a meeting that played out between the then coach Harry Viljoen and the then Sports Minister Ngconde Balfour.
Minister Balfour had called an urgent meeting a day before the Test match. He wanted to speak about the lack of black player representation in the Bok squad. He wanted five black players in the match 22 and wanted to know why this was not happening.
Minister Balfour was fired up for the meeting and bullish. He had come to condemn the situation but spoke with little insight into the reality of South African rugby and based his attack on a perception that Harry, in picking four black players in the match-day 22, did not want to pick more black players.
Balfour drew a triangle of SA Rugby, with the Boks at the top, the Super 12 in the middle and the Currie Cup at the bottom, saying that he was happy with their progress at Super 12 and Currie Currie Cup, but that the Springbok level of transformation was not acceptable.
It was the most ignorant of statements and it was asked of him how he could be happy with the progress of transformation in Super 12 when only six black players were given regular game time out of four combined regional squad numbers totaling 130. Of the six, four were wingers and of the six, Harry had picked three, with Conrad Jantjes picked as a 21 year-old fullback who had yet to make his Super Rugby debut.
Viljoen challenged Balfour for an answer as to how he could select a transformed Springboks team when just six black players were involved in Super rugby and four of these players played the same position.
Balfour did not have an answer to the reality of the diabolical state of transformation in the professional game in 2001, with the knock-on effect being that the Springboks were not a transformed team.
In the years that followed, every Bok team announcement came packaged with a statement from whoever was the Minister of Sport and many politicians would always find their voice as to the lack of black players in the national equation.
It became a numbers game and this numbers game did a lot of damage to black players whose position in the team always seemed to be second guessed on the basis of skin colour.
All the players wanted in 2001 was to be treated like rugby players, to be judged as rugby players and to be selected for the national team because a coach believed them to be the best players.
The road to transformation utopia has been one long slog, but those black Springboks who will front the All Blacks on Saturday can finally tell their predecessors what it feels like to be judged on a rugby-playing ability and picked for the Springboks on rugby-playing ability.
🇿🇦 Your Springbok team to face the All Blacks in Gold Coast 💪🏼 pic.twitter.com/ErgI6mgBwn
— Springboks (@Springboks) October 1, 2021