Wanted: black Springboks
Tomorrow the Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team, play New Zealand, their most formidable rivals in arguably the toughest rugby match of the year. Last year I watched the game in a tiny South African underground pub close to the Panthéon in Paris. It was awesome except, of course, for the result, which was largely due to a silly decision by the referee to send off Bismarck du Plessis for a fair tackle on Dan Carter. This year promises to be even more entertaining: South Africa has selected a young flyhalf after losing to Australia the previous week in a game again affected by the heavy hand of the referee. (It must be said, though, that no one deserved to win that game. It was an awful game of rugby.)
But instead of chatter about flyhalfs, forwards, referee decisions or Jeanne de Villiers’ centennial test match, the largest game of the year has been overshadowed by the plans of the South Africa Rugby Union, published last Sunday in Afrikaans newspaper Rapport, to have at least a 50% quota of black players in the 2019 Springbok team. To achieve this, the Springbok coach will be ‘requested’ to ensure that at least 7 of the 23 players in his squad to go to the World Cup in England next year are not white, of which 5 have to play and 2 have to be African black. Similar quotas have also been put in place for the South African sevens team, the /19 team, provincial coaches, and referees.
Quotas are not new to the South African landscape; they have been touted as possible interventions to address what I think most South Africans can agree with: that there is too little representation of black South Africans in the national rugby team. Against Australia last week, only one black player, Tendai (The Beast) Mtawarira, was in the starting fifteen. He was replaced late in the second half by Trevor Nyakane, the only other black player in the squad. Bryan Habana, who happened to play in his 100th game for the Springboks, and Cornal Hendricks were the only two other non-white players in the starting team.
Because few would question the goal of greater representation, the question really is whether a quota is the right way to achieve it and, if not, what the alternatives are. Max du Preez and Gareth van Onselen took opposing views on this. (Do yourself a favour and don’t read the comments to the Du Preez piece.) Du Preez says yes, quotas are necessary. Van Onselen says no it’s not. Both raise valid points: Du Preez argues that more than 20 years after South Africa became a democracy, quotas are necessary to ensure that coaches give black players a chance: “When two players in the same position have more or less the same talent and ability, you obviously pick the black one to restore the balance and build a new rugby culture.” Van Onselen disagrees that quotas are the way to do this: “As for coaches who sideline or discount deserving black talent, they should be fired”. He doesn’t really propose any alternative to more rapid transformation.
Both commentators however miss what I believe is the most important factor: the majority of black players are not in schools where they get the necessary coaching that makes a successful Springbok. Rugby has changed. It is no longer a sport where you can simply pick up a ball and run your proverbial way into the provincial and national teams.* The top schools are elite academies where they coach their best players with nutrition, fitness, and technical advice that one needs to succeed. They have good equipment, good infrastructure and offer their players constant exposure to other top talent, allowing them to improve faster.
There is really only a small number of schools that have these facilities, and they tend to dominate provincial and national teams. To prove this point, consider this list of all players that has ever represented South Africa. All 793 players came from only 295 schools high schools, less than 5% of the total number of high schools in South Africa today (6591). Of these 295 schools, a third of all players to every play for the Springboks come from only ten schools. (If you wanted to be fancy you could calculate a Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality in society. South Africa’s rugby Gini is 0.52. This is of schools that at least produced one Springbok. If I were to include all schools, the Gini would be above 0.91, much higher than a measure of income inequality.) Or if you don’t believe that the older statistics matter, just consider the Springbok team to play the All Blacks tomorrow: 8 of the 15 players in the starting fifteen went to one of the top ten schools on the all-time list.
That means that if we are to ensure that more black players play for South Africa, it is not enough to simply say that coaching facilities at poor schools should improve. Even if these facilities improve, the kids won’t have access to all the other elite skills that they nowadays need to be a professional rugby player: gym sessions, nutritional advice, specialised coaching and frequent competition. Even a white kid with potential would have a far bigger chance of becoming a Springbok if he attends one of the top ten schools, than if he was to attend a school that had never produced a Springbok.
Different to the kind of comments you might read on news sites, it is not that the talent is not available. If South Africa had to pick seven black players tomorrow, we could. Among the forwards, Siya Kolisi has recently shown some the form that first made him a crowd favourite while Cheetah flanker Teboho Mohoje is already in the Springbok squad. Nazeem Carr and Lubabalo Mtyanda have been stand-out performers for Western Province and the Pumas respectively. At the back, Lwazi Mvovo still impresses with his speed, although he has perhaps met his match with Western Province and Sevens star Seabelo Senatla. And it’s difficult not to get excited about Juan de Jongh’s and especially Cheslin Kolbe‘s mazy runs. Yet it should be noted that all of these (black) players attended former Model-C schools, with five of those schools ranked in the top 50 on the above list (and 2 in the top 10). Which proves my point that it is really only the top rugby schools where talent can be nurtured well enough to reach the level required to play for the Springboks.
Because quotas, unfortunately, do not work. Economists know that they can create perverse incentives: It is not only demoralising for a player to know he’s preferred to someone else based on something else besides his skill-level, but quotas will cause wages of good black players to rise sharply in contrast to white players (especially those white players that compete in the same positions with black players). That could lead to interesting team dynamics. Expect less player rotation and more player burn-out as the best black players will be ‘forced’ by their unions to play as many games as possible. Also, expect to see more players from other African countries – or even African American players – because the quotas seem to be about race, not nationality. (WP has already acquired the services of a very skilled Kenyan.) It is not entirely coincidental that when Zimbabwean-born Beast Mtawarira showed the potential he did, there was a hasty process to grant him South African citizenship.
In a utopian world, SARU would roll out clinics and infrastructure and coaches to all of South Africa’s poorest schools and do what everyone loves to call “grassroots development”. That is nice, but it won’t get more black players in the national team. The only way to do that is to grant large numbers of bursaries to black children that shows ability to attend the elite rugby schools around South Africa. Let me put this more practically: The only way to ensure a 50% black Springbok team (with no quotas) in a decade is if SARU identify the top 1000 u/13, u/14 and u/15 black players and ensure that they all receive full bursaries to attend one of the top 20 schools in the country. And the best is: it won’t be that difficult to implement. Give support at higher levels too. Many black players do well at group-age level, but struggle to make the transition to professional player. That is because black students often face high financial demands from family or don’t have the financial support structures that more affluent white kids have. SARU can support provincial rugby academies to provide a holistic approach to player development. And why not start a South African B-team, with a 90% black selection criteria, to play frequently against high-quality opposition? There would be an audience for that, too, I promise.
None of this is perfectly fair to everyone. There will still be many black kids that are excluded, the same as there are many white kids who are not exposed to soccer. But providing bursaries to kids with potential is a far more equitable (and realistic) approach than a quota system that will at best create unnecessary tensions and at worst fall flat (and cause much collateral damage) as such attempts have done in the past. Not only will bursaries broaden the pool of potential Springboks, but it will do so in a way that avoids the artificiality of affirmative action in the national team.
*There are exceptions, of course, like this guy.