Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Selling out the Springboks

Someone got a hold of the Nelspruit pitch paintbrush. In fact, both Ellis Park and Newlands appear to have suffered a similar fate. “Blue Label Telecoms” have snatched the very familiar spot where the ABSA logo has been safely nestled for years, between try-line and twenty-two, and that cosmetic change – harmless as it might appear – speaks volumes for the rumblings at the heart of the rugby franchise.

If you’re anything like me you may have decided to look somewhere other than the rugby being played in the first test at Mbombela Stadium last weekend. On show, for the majority of the match, was an adamant Argentinian team, regularly upending the Springboks best attempts at enforcing a ‘strategy’. We were as lucky as we were clinical in those dying moments of the game, and fortune smiled upon us when we squeaked away with a victory.

Fortune did not smile upon us again in Salta. The Argentinian victory in the return leg has put paid to the belief that there is anything special about the Springboks of today. We are officially in a “rebuilding phase”, which is a nice way of saying that our current best just isn’t the best.

Remember the Lions in their “rebuilding phase”? It took relegation and a four-year slog to finish second in 2016.

During our many head-in-hands moments at Mbombela, I found myself pondering the new blue rectangle emblazoned on the field just inside each twenty-two. It is of particular interest given the wholesale au revoir recently received by SA Rugby from its previous cohort of sponsors.

ABSA was one such sponsor, saying cheers to the green and gold just before the negotiations for contract renewal were to be wrapped up late last year. The official line from both parties highlighted an amicable split, which is a bit like your best friend telling you that he and his girlfriend recently came to a ‘mutual agreement’ to ‘part ways’. She left him. Buy him a Castle. Castle never left no-body.

This unceremonious farewell smacked of a similar withdrawal received by the bank itself, after Barclays Plc put the Project Serengeti red-to-blue rebranding exercise on hold as it prepared to “Axit” (Brexit’s African cousin). This must have left a sour taste in CEO Maria Ramos’s mouth after pulling a really solid set of results out the bag for 2015, as well as shunting bucket loads of dividends – albeit rand denominated dividends – to London over the previous decade. None-the-less, Barclays is out of ABSA, and ABSA is off the rugby field.

The question remains: why?

It is no secret that SA Rugby been has rocked by transformation politics for decades. Ever since the token non-white inclusion of Chester Williams in the famous 1995 World Cup victory over the All Blacks, the Springboks have struggled to maintain a serious claim to legitimacy in South African sport, with team after team boasting far more “Uit die blou van ons se hemel” than “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika”. It doesn’t help that the crowd can sometimes be heard shouting Beast! (Tendai Mtawarira’s affectionate nickname) when Siya Kolisi, Oupa Mahoje or Bongi Mbonambi take a crash ball into the opposition forwards.

Many have speculated that one of the core reasons behind ABSA’s exit has to do with this transformation conundrum. Being the progeny of Volkskas and United, among others, the amalgamated banking group has had its fair share of transformation issues in South Africa’s democratic era. Julius Malema (leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters) recently committed to occupying spaces of ‘white monopoly capital’, with ABSA first in the crosshairs. At a time when the bank is slogging it out with Capitec for a share of the emerging retail market, it is not surprising that ABSA is suddenly more conscious of the corporate image it portrays in these demographics. This will be especially concerning to their management when it is clear that Capitec is winning that race.

If the saying “put your money where your mouth is” holds true, then that provides some pretty dire criticism for the state of transformation in South African rugby. Here is a bank that has been happy to fund a sport to the tune of millions annually saying, “actually, no-thanks” at the eleventh hour. Let’s be clear though, this is not because they couldn’t sponsor the sport. Have you seen your bank charges lately? ABSA can be anybody’s blesser. It is because they didn’t want to. By their calculations, it is no longer in their best interests to do so.

This begs the question as to whether there is any fire under all this smoke. There are a few factors that might shed light on this quandary.

Firstly, Fikile Mbalula, our effervescent Sports Minister, recently put ‘Waka-Waka’ privileges for South African Rugby on hold, after confirming that the union had not been able field enough non-white faces in the last season. This was met with far-reaching outrage, with many criticising the moratorium as one that would actually harm the development initiatives of the game, not aid them. To be clear though, ‘enough’ is 35% non-Caucasian, which might be considered a paltry target in a country that is less than 10% pale. A bridge too far for our rugby playing fraternity apparently, and as a result ,the politicians have annoyingly intervened once again.

Whether you agree or disagree with the action taken by Mbalula, we can surely all concede that the teams we commit to represent our nation are by no means representative of our nation.

Secondly, if one looks at the resource pool from whence the national selection predominantly stems, there are only a handful of schools that have been producing the majority of our Springboks for decades; a trend which has not changed in recent years. This was an incredibly successful model of development, especially in an era when the All Blacks didn’t kick so much ass. But in the professional era of rugby, officially proclaimed after the success of the 1995 World Cup, the effectiveness of this process is now contested terrain.

While these schools may have their own transformation agendas (recent hairdo politics might cast serious doubt on this front though), the fact remains that the majority of the players leaving these institutions are also white, evidenced again by the composition of the Springbok Under-20’s team recently competing at their World Cup in England. For those calling on the sports minister to instead look at grass-roots development to affect transformation goals, rather than fiddling with national side quotas, there is a depressing lack of ‘black’ in our teams of tomorrow.

Institutionalised racism, anyone?

Frankly, we are still playing by the rules that won us World Cups in decades past. Doing the same thing and expecting different results – far cleverer people than me have called that insanity.

Lastly, we have quite simply got our development initiatives wrong. The state of financial ruin exhibited by the Eastern Province Kings has trickled onto the rugby field, with the franchise struggling to place higher than last in almost every competition they play in. Given that this was a pet project of the erstwhile SARU President, Oregan Hoskins, one would have hoped that ten years would be enough to create a credible institution from the ashes of the Southern Spears franchise. Alas, it was not to be.

If anything, the failure of the Kings is a clear manifestation of how low the transformation imperative features on our rugby administration’s priority list. There are certainly individuals within that administration that appear to give the issue some airtime, like the aforementioned Hoskins, but they have either been too scarce or too impotent to affect any serious institutional change.

Looking at the performance of our untransformed teams, one should note that we are down nine out of the last ten matches we’ve played against the All Blacks, with all indicators pointing to more of the same in games to come. There was a time when our record was better than 50% against New Zealand, but that is a long forgotten memory that only Oom Frikkie still reminisces about around an Oranje campfire. While the All Blacks have reinvented themselves on an institutional scale, the Springboks have been left playing the amateur rugby of the 90’s.

The dynamic institutions of tomorrow have spotted the changing winds in South Africa. Capitec is successfully lending where no bank was previously willing to lend. Curro is educating a burgeoning black middle class, and investors cannot stop throwing money at them. ABInbev just signed a $100bn cheque for the company that learnt how to sell shabeen beer in the townships where few dared to tread all those years ago. History will look kindly on those that found a way to reinvent the status quo. We should expect nothing less from the Springboks.

Until we can effortlessly field a team of “all blacks” against the All Blacks, we simply cannot say we are playing to our full potential. SA Rugby needs to get smart and take the sport to every corner of the country, so that every corner of the country can give us back a Springbok. There is more than a claim to legitimacy at stake here. Unless little kids in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal are dreaming of one day playing for Amabokoboko, there is no chance that we will be world beaters once again, for one simple reason: math.

Mandela made a powerful move by giving the Springboks political legitimacy in 1995. It was an olive branch that our nation, as well as our rugby team, vitally needed at a time of great uncertainty. It gave our boys the strength of a country, and gave our country the strength of hope. Over twenty years later, the rugby fraternity is yet to return the favour. Instead, team after team has shown the middle finger to the transformation imperative. The sponsors have spoken. This attitude is no longer an option. We need a Kings-Canes final, and we need it in the next five years.

We all want the Springboks to be a winning side again. Madiba showed us what the beautiful gift of unity can provide. And let’s be honest, the boerewors just tastes better after beating the All Blacks. The only way that will happen again is if we’re all pulling in the same direction, not just a handful of Smiths and Van Der Merwes.