Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Recruitment Drive

Pienaar and Mandela
Spirit of '95
It's out and about in the Village tonight, trying to make sure that in the battle for the hearts and minds of Rugby's neutrals that England comes out on top in support at the weekend. Against any other team than South Africa it would be a hopeless task; however circumstances have conspired to bring together the two teams in world rugby most hated outside their home nation.

Antipathy to England is a time honoured tradition. Despite occasional attempts at more modern justifications about the style of play or allegations of arrogance, still lie largely rooted in ancient grievances, real or imaginary, except perhaps in the case of New Zealand and Australia who seem to believe they should be allowed a duopoly on wild and sometimes over the top celebration of their teams' successes.

The case against the Springboks is one that I actually believe is one that is becoming increasingly unfair, though the South African government and the sport's administrators there must bear no small part of the blame for this unfairness. For all the wonderful scenes of 1995, with a beaming, Springbok shirt clad Nelson Mandela presenting the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar, the question of race continues to dog the national team.

There is no doubt whatsoever that in the early post-apartheid era that the sports administrators deserved most, if not all, of the blame, lagging far behind the average Springbok fan in a whole hearted acceptance of the new multi-racial society. While Afrikaner and English South African supporters learned to sing the new multi-national national anthem with pride, South Africa's rugby administrators did little more than half-heartedly cease to discriminate.

Over time though things changed, as a new generation of coaches, free from much of the political baggage of the past drove home the message that the highest levels of South African rugby would indeed be the very best the country had to offer, regardless of creed or colour. This is how sport should be, but there is a massive problem. For all of the SARU's best efforts, Rugby Union is disproportionately popular, at least in terms of participation, in the white and especially Afrikaans speaking community. The inevitable outcome is that while Springbok starting XVs will, in terms of racial makeup, possibly representative of participation levels at the grassroots, it is unlikely that it will represent the makeup of the country as a whole for some time to come.

In time things will change for rugby in South Africa, but politics is increasingly a sport of the here and now, and element of the South African government and its agencies have tried playing hardball, attempting to impose unrealistic quotas and launching quite personal attacks on senior figures in the game there.

It's all been horribly counter productive. Jake White, who has a better than evens chance of taking home the trophy at the weekend already knows that his reward for any success will be to be forced to reapply for his job, something as a matter of pride he is unlikely to do instantly tainting any victory.

Sure, there are a few die-hards in the South African rugby establishment, there are enough closer to home, but they will pass on and a new generation will assert itself. Is though a young talented coloured player likely to feel more or less likely to aim for the top of the sport, as a result of his government's continuous witch hunt?

To such a player I would say, do not listen to the same government whose attitudes on so many other, even more important issues, defy all common sense. Look instead not only at the team at the weekend, but the crowd, and your countrymen enjoying autumnal Paris. No, the numbers are not equal, yet, but nor is there segregation. The travelling support is that of one nation.

Get away from the politics, both national and supporting, and at least from the pictures I see, the spirit of '95 is alive and well. I just hope it's a spirit that bonds in commiseration, not celebration in a few days time!

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