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Fri Oct 31 14:15:59 SAST 2014

THE BIG READ: Black rugby denied a sporting chance

Carlos Amato | 14 September, 2012 00:05
Itembelihle Comprehensive teammates before a game against Molly Blackburn High School in Uitenhage. Rugby is hugely popular among black people in the Eastern Cape, but gets little official backing Picture: CARLOS AMATO

Zola Yeye is gatvol. The former Springbok team manager believes the South African Rugby Union has reneged on its development pact by giving the Eastern Province Kings only one guaranteed season in Super rugby. And he warns that South African rugby is in a state of denialism when it comes to transformation.

"They've thrown the Kings a hospital pass," says Yeye, the SABC's Eastern Cape regional manager.

"It would be a miracle if the team find the right mix and stay up in the first year. It's like giving birth to a baby and expecting it to be winning academic prizes when it is a year old. Saru didn't give the same conditions to other franchises, who are doing whatever they like."

If Super Rugby history is any guide, the freshmen Kings are likely to finish bottom of the South African Conference.

They would then have to win a play-off against the Lions to stay in the tournament.

The rationale behind their promotion - that the Kings should blaze a trail for black rugby - would be defeated if they were relegated.

For Yeye, the decision not to protect the Kings project is symptomatic of the lack of transformation in rugby.

"In the 20 years since unity, we've seen only cosmetic changes," he says.

"There have been sparks of change here and there, but we haven't produced much.

"It's ridiculous that now people are even asking, what is transformation? Why can't we define it? This country is in transformation."

"I'm not saying that black players should be parachuted into teams," he says.

"But all the franchises have to show commitment. Players don't select themselves, they get selected by individuals."

Yeye also bemoans "poaching" of Eastern Province rugby's finest schoolboy talent by the big unions - who then fail to pick them at senior level.

"Our players get frustrated in Gauteng, Durban and Cape Town, then come back here and end their careers."

But surely Eastern Province rugby officialdom have only themselves to blame for losing their stars - most recently Siya Kolisi and Lwazi Mvovo - to richer and better-managed unions?

Until the election of Cheeky Watson as president, the Eastern Province Rugby Union was ruled by a procession of suits almost as incompetent as the political leadership in the province.

That legacy cannot be blamed on the actions of Bulls or Sharks executives.

Much has been made of the powerful base of rugby schools in the province, but the pockets of excellence, such as Grey and Dale, allow for official complacency about the neglect elsewhere. Township schools rugby remains hugely under-resourced, with some notable exceptions such as Ithembelihle, Molly Blackburn and Ndzondelelo.

And, whenever black and coloured schools or clubs do defy the odds and excel, they haemorrhage talent to their largely white rivals and fall back into mediocrity. The Uitenhage coloured club Progress defeated mighty Maties a few years ago, and promptly lost all its kingpins to neighbouring Despatch.

The pattern is similar in other provinces, but the region is a special case. It's one of those rare corners of the rugby world where the game is deeply rooted in the working class.

That's why the fate of the Kings matters so much to the future of the local game: the franchise must "energise the base" and make the game an engine of social mobility in a deeply depressed community.

"Rugby is no longer an innocent sport. It's economics, it's tourism, it's so many things. It's huge. People who've never come to Port Elizabeth before will come here. Businesses on the brink of collapse will have the chance to survive," says Yeye.

"I've been with Cheeky in the trenches for many years. He's a committed individual. But he cannot change rugby alone. He needs assistance from everyone. The Kings must survive, they must succeed. We've been waiting for this too long."

It helps that one of the city's working-class heroes, 2010 World Cup supremo Danny Jordaan, has bequeathed a R2-billion stadium as the city's new temple of rugby.

The authorities say Nelson Mandela Bay stadium will start to break even next year. If it does, it will be first World Cup ground to escape white elephant status.

Watson traces the weakness of amateur black rugby back to unity in 1992.

"The previously disadvantaged have always focused on reconciliation more than restitution. The non-racialists have made every effort to ensure unity.

"But what unity did was to destroy rugby in the townships, because white clubs were far more advantaged. Back in the day, extended families were involved in black clubs.

"Members would get together to help families in need. But that whole social structure was broken down by unity. Clubs merged and poorer clubs had to compete against those who were steeped in the benefits of the apartheid economy."

Saru reckons that the dizzying sum of R500-million has been spent on rugby development since 1992. During that period, a total of about 50 black Boks have been selected, most of them very briefly.

"This is the only region where you have equal support for rugby across all different races.

"The crowd for the Bok test here this year was magnificently mixed. This region can effect reconciliation in a tremendous way.

"It can be a beacon of hope," says Watson.

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