Arrested development

JON CARDINELLI investigates the lack of black forwards at the highest levels and whether black forwards are genetically smaller than their white counterparts.

The biggest transformation failure over the past five years has been up front. The pitiful number of black forwards to represent the Springboks testifies to the fact, as does the negligible representation at Super 14 and Currie Cup levels. Why is it that South Africa manages to produce so many black backs, but so few black forwards? With a predominantly white make-up and two black wings, it’s no wonder some jokers refer to our national side as the Seagulls rather than the Springboks.

Since the start of the 2006 Test season, 29 black (black African and coloured) players have been used by the Boks. Eighteen of those have been backline players (12 of those wingers or fullbacks) while 11 have been forwards. Subtract two from the latter because the Zimbabwean-reared Beast Mtawarira and Brian Mujati are not products of the South African system. Nine forwards remain, of which just three are currently playing at the highest level. Apart from Bandise Maku, Chiliboy Ralepelle and Gurthrö Steenkamp, six black Bok forwards have faded into obscurity.

Eddie Andrews has long since retired, although he’s still at an age where he could be contributing (33). Hanyani Shimange is Western Province’s third-choice hooker. When fit, Lawrence Sephaka plays in the Vodacom Cup, but struggles to make the Lions’ senior team. Kabamba Floors is a permanent fixture on the Cheetahs’ bench, Hilton Lobberts is languishing at Boland, and Solly Tyibilika is playing for Border in the First Division.

A spate of injuries and poor management has afflicted Ralepelle’s career, while Maku has been the victim of similar malpractice at the Bulls. Steenkamp is one of the few success stories, although one homegrown, experienced black Bok forward is not enough.

Consider the demographics of a country where black people outnumber their white counterparts by nine to one. You’d think that South Africa would be spoiled for choice in the black forward department, but as the evidence suggests, this is not the case.

We’re told by Saru that the racial make-up of the age-group teams proves that transformation is working, but so few of those black players progress. The SA U21 side that won the 2005 World Championship is a prime example. Twelve players of colour (six forwards and six backs) were in that squad. Of the forwards, Ralepelle and Lobberts (who both also represented the successful SA U19 side) went on to play for the Bulls and Boks. None of the remaining forwards are currently contracted to a ‘big-five’ union. Davon Raubenheimer (Griquas) and Martin Sithole (Pumas) are at least competing in the Premier Division, but great junior prospects like Nikolai Blignaut (Boland) and Sangoni Mxoli (EP Kings) are wasting away in First Division oblivion.

Meanwhile, a number of the white players who featured in those age-group squads are thriving. Gerhard Mostert (Sharks), Pieter Louw (WP-Stormers), Heinke van der Merwe (formerly of the Lions and Boks, and now with Leinster) and Derick Kuün (Bulls) have all had extensive exposure to Super Rugby.

Saru says that black players have received insufficient opportunities at Currie Cup and Super Rugby levels, and that coaches are to blame. Others argue that the level of the competition is significantly higher on the senior stage. This latter line of thinking follows that some black players are fast-tracked into junior teams and are unprepared for the high standards of professional rugby.

Transformation becomes an ugly issue when quotas or targets are enforced. People who persist with such thinking miss the point. Transformation is impossible without development. Pushing a player into a professional team when he’s not ready is counterproductive. Administrators and politicians should be investing their resources and energies into black player development at grassroots level instead, so that in the future these players progress through the junior ranks and earn their standing in senior teams on merit.

Developing a new generation of black forwards is a task former Bok assistant coach Gert Smal volunteered for in 2008. After the World Cup in France, Smal felt he could do some good in the rugby-rich region of the Eastern Cape. He hoped to spearhead a programme aimed at producing more black forwards.

Smal put together a proposal and sent it to Saru, but they never got back to him. After months of waiting for a reply, Smal eventually accepted a post with the Irish Rugby Union and is still working with the national team as the forwards coach today.

‘It was a pity that I never got the chance to help the Eastern Cape,’ Smal says. ‘I’ve worked with Border before and I have a good idea of the complexities and politics of the region. With my experience as a World Cup coach I could have offered a fair amount of help to the coaches and administration.

‘There needs to be a concerted effort to bring black players through, and especially black forwards. I don’t buy the argument that they don’t exist. The black forwards are there, they just need to be identified and brought through the system.

‘I can’t comment on what Saru is doing because I haven’t been in the country for a while, but there needs to be some sort of forwards academy that will help with the fast-tracking of black forwards in South Africa, and that academy needs to incorporate the help of quality coaches to ensure players progress to provincial and even national level with the necessary skills.’

Saru president Regan Hoskins and his deputy Mark Alexander refused to answer any questions on the subject when contacted by SA Rugby magazine. It appears that the president is happy to criticise Currie Cup and Super Rugby teams for their failure to field sufficient players of colour, but when it comes to telling the public about what Saru is doing to improve the situation, he isn’t so forthcoming.

However, Saru CEO Jurie Roux agreed to answer our questions via e-mail. He makes it clear that all 14 provinces need to work at developing black talent, and believes the structures are in place to provide top teams with black players. He denies knowledge of Smal’s proposal to develop black forwards in the Eastern Cape, and is non-committal in answering whether South Africa really needs a specialised black forwards academy.

‘Saru is in favour of any initiatives designed to develop and improve players,’ says Roux, ‘so long as they are appropriately managed and run and do not conflict with the interests of South African rugby as a whole.’

The Kings are set to join Super Rugby in 2013 and no doubt the region will be subject to various development initiatives in the interim. As the numbers in top-flight rugby suggest, black backline players aren’t short on opportunities, but black forwards are something of a rarity. Surely it’s in South African rugby’s interest to change that?

And what better place to start than the Eastern Cape?

‘Whatever they decide to do, there needs to be more of an effort,’ says Smal. ‘It’s something I took upon myself to do, even when I was coaching Western Province. I realised that we had a lot of talented black backs, but not many black forwards. [Former Bok lock] Quinton Davids was probably one of the rare success stories.’

Smal believes the black forwards are there, and that they need to be identified and offered the right opportunities to develop. In challenging this view, some believe that black South Africans aren’t as big as Afrikaans South Africans, and that genetically speaking, they’re never going to offer the same power and size as their white Afrikaans counterparts.

Sports scientist Dr Ross Tucker is aware of the perception. He believes that Saru needs conclusive scientific data if South African rugby is to move forward.

‘A study was conducted at Craven Week level, and it found that the black players were smaller than their white counterparts,’ says Tucker. ‘However, it was also taken into consideration how many of these players were from previously disadvantaged areas, and how that affected their diet and training. They obviously didn’t have the same access to gym equipment and supplements as the white kids.

‘The study did highlight some physical differences, but I don’t think it’s linked to genetics. There are certain population groups that are going to be more suited to a particular sport than others, and I suppose the east Africans are an example when it comes to long-distance running, but it’s a stretch to apply that theory to black South African rugby forwards.

‘There is no conclusive evidence that black South Africans are genetically smaller than white South Africans. To obtain that kind of evidence, you’d need to track players at the lower levels and ensure black and white players get the same opportunities. If the study shows that more black players hit the ceiling of their physical potential before whites, then there may be a case.

‘It’s an argument that will be dismissed as racist in this country, but it should be a matter of science. It’s worth investigating because the findings will offer conclusive evidence. It’s strange that no study has been conducted yet. Transformation is a big deal in South Africa and millions of rands have been spent on development.’

Tucker says that if it’s true that black South African players hit the ceiling of their physical potential before white players, then that must be factored into how transformation is approached at the higher levels. If it’s false then it highlights the importance of development to ensure the black players make the step up. With more quality players to choose from, South African rugby is always going to benefit.

But until there are conclusive answers, the debate will continue to rage. Transformation will remain a dirty word, the equivalent of a four-word epithet that evokes a dual sense of anger and prejudice. Unless Saru does some work to retrieve this information, they will continue to be part of the problem. South African rugby will continue to stagnate when it should be soaring.

– This article first appeared in the November issue of SA Rugby magazine.