Former South Africa rugby coach Jake White this week released his hypothetical team selections for the upcoming Tests against Wales, in the US, and England in South Africa, but drew sharp criticism for dividing the teams along predominantly racial lines.
Long before legendary New Zealand Eighth Man Zinzan Brooke mesmerised the rugby world in the 1980s and 90s, South Africa’s Clive Thomas became a local legend at that position, while playing for the non-racial South African Rugby Union.
Brooke played in an era of strong No 8s, such as England’s Dean Richards and Australia’s Tim Gavin. They were hard-working players, but didn’t quite have the New Zealander’s talent and aura.
In fact, there has probably only been a handful players in the history of the game who can be compared to Brooke.
However, during the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, as a 13-year-old kid from a town called Paarl — about 60km north of Cape Town — I kept hearing wiser people say, “This Zinzan Brooke reminds me of Clive…”
Like Brooke, Thomas was gifted with great skill and anticipation, and as a classic No 8 he covered the backline and helped out his fullback with aplomb. He was a dangerous customer on attack for Tygerberg, and for Boland in the SA Cup in the 70s.
But, because of apartheid, Thomas couldn’t even compete in the domestic Currie Cup against his white counterparts, never mind facing the Haka on the international stage.
Even though white players only competed amongst themselves during apartheid and thus had no means to compare skills, black competitors were still viewed as inferior players purely because of the colour of their skin.
Yet, even 23 years after South Africa became a democracy, there is still a feeling amongst a section of white supporters that black rugby players are inferior to their white counterparts.
And it’s not only people who spew venom in article comment sections, blogs, and social media posts who believe this. It seems former Springbok coach Jake White does too.
White’s column on All Out Rugby this week suggests that the Boks should pick a predominantly black team for the first Test of the year against Wales in Washington DC on 2 June, before picking a different side for the Tests against England in South Africa.
The team he selected for the first Test against England a week later is mostly white, and it drew critical comment from former Bok forward Ollie le Roux, amongst others.
Because Bok coach Rassie Erasmus is required to field a certain number of black players — SA Rugby is targeting 50 percent black representation in 2019 — White feels that picking a team of black players against Wales would serve multiple purposes.
It would “serve the dual purpose of banking transformation credits to create selection breathing room for the England series, and would also give all of these players a chance to put their hand up on the international stage”.
‘Breathing room’ is the key phrase here, and one that is quite bothersome. It’s a phrase that White should have thought twice about before putting in online, never mind ‘banking transformation credits’ as if he’s getting something annoying out the way.
It’s obvious that the less glamorous of the two Tests will be the one in the United States against the Welsh, and picking a black team for this Test, while selecting an almost exclusively white team for the England Tests at home, is the sort of thinking that takes us straight back to the dark days of the 70s and 80s.
South Africa has more than enough black players who perform superbly week in and week out in Super Rugby, as well as overseas, and to basically reduce them to ‘dirt trackers’ ahead of a key series against England is quite laughable.
White picks Siya Kolisi to captain the ‘black’ team and leaves him out of his predominantly ‘white’ team for the first Test against England. But Stormers captain Kolisi should actually be appointed the permanent Bok skipper, and not just a token leader of what White apparently believes is a second-rate team.
How can we even consider having white and black Springbok teams in 2018? Why can’t we just send the second-string team to play Wales, and keep the first-choice players home to face England? Both teams would feature enough black and white players, picked on merit, to satisfy everyone.
Of course, it’s always great to see if players can sink or swim on the international stage, as White alludes to in the above quote. But with what sort of mindset, does a talented black player go into match knowing that he has only been picked to give the coach some quota player ‘breathing room’?
Black rugby has a rich history of producing fine players who display a great, intelligent brand of rugby. But in his column White aims to undermine it by insinuating that transformation and winning don’t go hand in hand. The South African Test cricket team would have something to say about that.
The prodigal story of Clive Thomas is a sad one, but a tale that should remind us that modern-day South Africa is a place where all can have their place in the sun. Black people are second-class citizens no more, never mind second-class rugby players.