Give Jan the red card

Keo, in his weekly Business Day newspaper column, writes Vodacom’s Player 23 campaign is an insult to the cosmopolitan South African rugby supporter.

For 10 years South African rugby’s marketing team did everything to reflect that in a new South Africa there was a new South African rugby culture far removed from the brandy and coke potbellied types that stereotype the traditional white Afrikaans male’s bond with the game.

Zulu dancers were introduced as part of pre-match entertainment at Tests, playing quotas ensured black representation on the field and slowly blacks were enticed to experience an afternoon at the palace of what was once a white’s only affair.

There was an effort being made to change perception and to kill off stereotyping, but South African rugby could guarantee nothing outside of their control – and they don’t control who pays to go to a ground. They could not foresee Piet van Zyl, dressed in jeans and a Springbok jersey that couldn’t accommodate his barrel gut, casually wondering onto the field and assaulting Irish referee Dave McHugh when the Springboks played the All Blacks in Durban in 2002, and they could not be accountable for the actions of an unidentified individual who racially abuses another at a game.

All that South African rugby can control is that over which it has influence, and that is why the endorsement of Vodacom’s 2009 rugby campaign is baffling because all it has done is reinforce that the South African rugby fan is everything the organization has tried to convince us is no longer the case.

Vodacom, as the primary sponsor of rugby in South Africa, is celebrating the year of the fan. His name is Jan, he is player 23 in the team and he is a clone of the 1970s white Springbok rugby supporter – a walking caricature of what has always repulsed. Only they’ve given Jan a personality of being a jovial and hugely popular bloke, but perception is stronger than fact and the physical appearance of Jan and what he represents in the stands adds to the perception that rugby in South Africa is still a game supported only by grossly overweight brandy and coke potbellied types.

I have sympathy for the well-traveled and likeable modern Afrikaans-speaking South African who loves his language, loves his rugby and loves living in South Africa. This modern Afrikaner certainly doesn’t look or act like Jan and he must cringe every time he sees the advertisement.

In an evolving South African rugby audience market, Jan is in the minority at Stormers and Sharks matches, which says player 23 should be a celebration of something more than a pot-bellied Afrikaans speaking supporter. What of Gert, who is sophisticated, lean and intelligent? What of Sipho, who digs his rugby almost as much as he does soccer? What of Alice who never misses a game? What of Peter, who has always put the Springboks first on a Saturday afternoon?

Vodacom will defend their choice of Jan as good natured fun and SA Rugby will see nothing offensive in it, yet continue to wonder why the perception that their game caters only for conservative and racist whites.

The game in this country is more cosmopolitan in support than it has ever been and that is the pity of the advertisement because it reflects the past when there is so much of the current to be showcased when the British & Irish Lions visit in June.

This is not about being politically correct, but about accuracy in who supports the Springboks. There is more to South African rugby than Jan, but thanks to Jan it will take another 10 years to convince critics of South African rugby that there is life beyond the 23rd member of the team.

Things off the field have changed in our rugby and innovation would be celebrating this in the same way the Bulls and Sharks celebrated what hasn’t changed on the field, which is the ability of a good South African team to turn defence into the most lethal form of attack.

The Bulls and Sharks were brutal in defending their line against the Hurricanes and Force respectively, and the skill in maintaining defensive composure is equal to anything a team does when given the ball.

Rugby is a game played as much without the ball as with it, and at the weekend we saw two very good South African sides reinforce the stereotype that South African teams are more dangerous without the ball.

And, unlike Jan, that is a stereotype the cosmopolitan South African rugby fan should never find offensive.