As appearing in “Keo’s Corner” in the Cape Times and IOL Sport
It has taken 20 years but I can finally write about a transformed Springbok rugby occasion, which is also representative of an SA Rugby way of life.
I need to go back, albeit briefly, for you to fully appreciate how much rugby has progressed as the Springboks pay their final homage to Newlands, by way of a Green versus Gold exhibition match that showcases the best of South Africa’s locally based professional talent.
Rewind to June, 2001, the Cullinan Hotel in Cape Town and a meeting between Springbok coach Harry Viljoen, the then Sports Minister Ngconde Balfour, SA Rugby boss Rian Oberholzer and myself. Harry had picked four players of colour in his match 22 to play the All Blacks at Newlands.
Minister Balfour was outraged at the lack of transformation. The ‘four’, back then, were more than had ever represented a Springbok match-day squad. Balfour found it unacceptable. He wanted to know why there were not more.
It was explained to Minister Balfour that out of the 120 Super Rugby players, only four were non-white and that Viljoen rated midfielder Robbie Fleck ahead of Deon Kayser. Viljoen had selected SA under 20 fullback Conrad Jantjies on his Vodacom Cup form and potential.
The meeting ended on a positive, with Minister Balfour thanking Rian and Harry for their commitment to transforming South African rugby.
Fast forward to Newlands, 2020.
The Green squad is captained by 2019 World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi. It is coached by World Cup-winning assistant coach Mzwandile Stick. The Gold squad is captained by Lukhanyo Am and coached by former Kings coach Deon Davids.
There is not a white presence among captains and coaches.
Stick and Davids, along with 2019 World Cup-winning coach Rassie Erasmus and new Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber, picked their respective strongest starting line-ups. Among the 30 players, 21 players (10 in the Green Team and 11 in the Gold Team) are players of colour.
That represents 70 percent black representation of Springbok rugby’s best local talent.
And the most telling observation is that a black player makes up every position in the starting XV across the two teams.
My goodness, this is a good news story.
I have always championed transformation in South African rugby, South African sport and South African society as a non-negotiable and one that was not occasion-specific but a way of life.
Finally, it is happening.
For years I beat up the leadership of Springbok and SA Rugby for their failure to recognize transformation and take ownership of transforming the game.
I consistently wrote that for rugby to transform, it had to come from within and from the heart. It had to be done for the right reasons.
Erasmus, Nienaber, SA Rugby CE Jurie Roux and SA Rugby President Mark Alexander have all achieved individually, on the field and in the boardroom, but their legacy will be that of a transformed South African rugby landscape.
I couldn’t stop smiling when I saw the two starting line-ups.
Study the line-ups and take a moment to reflect and consider that two World Cup-winning certainties, wingers Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe won’t play at Newlands because they are overseas. Kolbe, based in Toulouse in France, is the hottest property in world rugby and Mapimpi is sizzling in Japan.
Springbok forwards Oupa Mohoje and Trevor Nyakane were originally selected but when Mohoje tested positive for Covid-19, his roommate Nyakane was withdrawn from the match as a precaution.
The number of black players will only continue to rise when it comes to Springbok selections because finally selection is about the quality of a player and not his colour.
And for that, SA Rugby National Director Erasmus can never be thanked enough.