IN A bizarre move, the South African Rugby Union (Saru) has decided to withdraw funding for its academy in Port Elizabeth. It is one of four academies set up with great fanfare in 2013 with Lotto money in areas with substantial black rugby talent.
For the past two years, Saru has funded them. From next year, it will fund only the East London academy.
I spent last week in the Eastern Cape doing research for a film on transformation in rugby.
It rapidly became apparent that the Southern Kings are going to have difficulty fielding a credible Super Rugby team next year, never mind one that fulfils its promise of showcasing local black talent.
The Southern Kings team that lost to Western Province in a preseason Currie Cup friendly on Saturday was largely white and featured several players who have already been recycled through other unions.
The only bright spot for the Southern Kings on Saturday was their Under-19s, the one team to beat their Western Province counterparts. This is their third victory in a row. They have already won their games against the Cheetahs and the Bulls. Around half the Southern Kings under-19s team consists of black boys recruited from Eastern Cape schools and they are coached by a local player, former Sevens captain Mzwandile Stick.
The under-19s are products of the academy about to be cut adrift by Saru. There seems little hope of the Southern Kings taking up the slack. They are themselves in financial difficulties, unable to pay their players’ salaries for the past month.
It would be mortifying for SA if the Southern Kings’ Super Rugby venture were to be allowed to fail. Failure would partly be defined as fielding yet another team of largely white players bought in from elsewhere.
The bloated, 18-team version of Super Rugby that comes into being next year was created largely to accommodate their long-term inclusion. The reason Saru pushed so hard for it was to boost black rugby by giving the Eastern Cape its own team in the most competitive competition in world rugby.
They were right to do so. Not only will a successful Super Rugby team hugely strengthen black rugby but it will also limit the buying up of black players from the region by other franchises. If these players can achieve their dreams of making a Super Rugby or Springbok team in their own province, they will stay at home, where they will be a lot better off.
Speaking to rugby people in the Eastern Cape last week, I realised just how profound and widespread is the conviction that black players are deliberately excluded from professional teams. I was repeatedly given examples, for instance, of black players who could have shone in the place of some of the current Springboks incumbents.
“I have no problem with the white boys in the team,” said one. “They have worked very hard to get where they are. But I weep for the black boys who were never given the chance.”
Poverty and inequality are major culprits in keeping our teams white. For instance, a rugby coach at a mainly black former Model C school in Grahamstown said when his boys ran onto the field for practice at 3.30pm, he was very aware that they had been up since 4am for the long walk from township to school and that, in between, all they had had to eat was two slices of bread.
The same coach had been in charge of the Port Elizabeth Country Districts’ Craven Week squad the year before. He said the players had missed four meals before their first game because they weren’t given a travel allowance. This, before competing with players from some of the richest schools in the country.
But, on this trip, I also heard another view equally powerfully expressed: that, in fact, plenty of middle-class black boys were now also at good schools where they benefited from the same nutrition, education and sports facilities as white boys. And yet they were still not making it into professional teams.
These men I spoke to — intelligent, reasonable, passionate rugby fans — were adamant: a racial and cultural bias in mainstream rugby meant black boys were simply not being considered by a great number of white coaches.
In another development, it was reported at the weekend that the Super Rugby franchises are refusing to approve the allocation of broadcasting funds proposed for next year when the new deal kicks in. The proposal is to give the Super Rugby franchises R25m each a year and the eight small unions R15m. The big unions are balking at the share claimed by the other eight.
I hope the Super Rugby franchises stick to their guns. But I also hope this rebellion is part of a more ambitious plan to transform Saru so that it is better suited to serve South African rugby as a whole. The success or otherwise of the Southern Kings could be a litmus test of this.
The Southern Kings are clearly in need of help. I was told that, during Alan Solomons’s tenure as coach during the Kings’ first abortive Super Rugby stint, he established a clear progression path for players from under-19s to the senior team. In the succession of coaches who have followed him, this has been lost. As a result, the all-important development path for local players is interrupted.
Saru head office, which has until now so capably run the Eastern Cape academies, needs to take a more central role in the Eastern Cape. A hands-off attitude is not good enough. Cash that has been frittered away on professional teams run by the small unions should be diverted to development. Saru should not only continue to fund the Port Elizabeth Academy, but should expand it and establish others.
Anything less might make the allocation of a Super Rugby franchise to a black rugby-rich region look like a cynical gesture, setting them up to fail.