In 2008 Peter de Villiers picked his side on merit and he needs to persist with this policy despite injuries to several non-white players, writes Keo in Business Day.
Post-election analysis concluded that 15 years after democracy there was still too much emphasis on race in determining voter allegiance. I fear race will be as contentious an issue when Springbok coach Peter de Villiers names his first match 22 for the British and Irish Lions series.
Just six months ago, De Villiers was wondering what all the fuss about non-white selection was. He confidently picked coloured and black players because they were the best in their positions — consistently selecting six in his national starting XV.
South African rugby, with a non-white coach and good non-white representation entirely merited on ability, was in a racial state of calm. Team selection discussion focused on player ability, not pigmentation. It was bliss.
It won’t be the case in a few weeks. Conrad Jantjes, last season’s first-choice Bok fullback, is out with an injury. Adi Jacobs, the preferred option at outside centre, is in doubt and Ricky Januarie, at scrumhalf, can’t command a start with the sad sack Stormers.
If De Villiers is to play Bok captain John Smit at tighthead prop it will be at the expense of Zimbabwean import Brian Mujati. There is no black or coloured loose-forward good enough to make the team and there is no challenger to the lock duo of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha. Gurthro Steenkamp, at loosehead prop, is the best of the SA-based loose-head contenders, but his is a career plagued by injury and it will be a nervous watch to see if he makes it through the next month of the Super 14.
Once again, as was custom before De Villiers’s appointment, we are left with definite black/coloured representation, being limited to numbers 11 and 14. Frans Steyn, in the absence of Jantjes, should be the starting fullback and Jacobs’s possible unavailability would scupper De Villiers’s intention to play centre Jaque Fourie at fullback.
De Villiers is spoilt for choice on the wing with JP Pietersen, the Ndungane twins, Tonderai Chavhanga, Bryan Habana and Jongi Nokwe all having represented the Springboks.
If De Villiers selected just two non-white wings and Steenkamp as his only non-white forward, would it be acceptable? Politicians would say no, but who do they represent and why should they be given column inches every time they disapprove of a national squad selection?
Last year, De Villiers picked the best players without prejudice. Fortunately for him, the core of his best non-white players were fit. The challenge now is for De Villiers to continue to select the best side, regardless of colour, and herein lays the test of true transformation within our rugby. Will De Villiers be strong enough in his belief in selecting the strongest XV or will he be influenced by racial numbers for fear of being accused of not transforming the game?
South African rugby, especially in Super Rugby, has made enormous strides in creating opportunities for black and coloured players, the majority of whom have shown themselves as the best in their respective positions. That is transformation.
I believe the South African game is transforming and the extent of that transformation should be measured in the changes in the Super 14 and Currie Cup. Counting the number of black, white and coloured players should not be an issue at a national level, where being the best has to be the only criterion for selection.
De Villiers, in 2008, could not once be accused of not picking on merit. There were contentious selections, like Jacobs instead of Fourie, but it was based on the coach’s belief in rugby ability.
Can he be as consistent when the non-white numbers are not there because of injury and loss of form? If he isn’t, it will be a regression.
De Villiers has a responsibility to select on merit, but the South African rugby media has as big a responsibility to respect that right of any national coach, and to focus on the rugby merits of those chosen to beat the Lions.
There are many dial-a-quote politicians, retired rugby players and administrators who will give a sensational sound bite based on numbers and the colour of those numbers. They have to be ignored. Too many trees have been lost in giving these guys a platform.
Transformation will have passed a test if the only cross-examination of De Villiers’s selection is confined to rugby.