By Ben Maclennan

The clash between two Boland rugby clubs that resulted in the death of a 24-year-old player allegedly kicked in the head was not the first violent confrontation between the sides.

Nor was it an isolated incident: club rugby in the Western Cape is regularly punctuated by violence, often fuelled by alcohol and sometimes by an undercurrent of racism.

Last Friday's match, where Riaan Loots was fatally injured, was between Rawsonville and Delicious, a team from Ceres.

After a match between the two sides in September 2004, a Delicious front ranker, Charlie Manuel, was suspended for life by the Boland Rugby Union (BRU) after hitting Rawsonville assistant coach Andre Carstens so hard that his eardrum burst.

That match was halted prematurely, and the referee had to leave the ground under police guard after being threatened by spectators.

In the aftermath, Delicious, a historically coloured club, complained that the BRU was listening to only "three white clubs" - one of which it names as Rawsonville - and not to "the other 200 brown and black clubs".

That was only one of several incidents in recent years.

In May 2003 players of Cape Town's Harlequins complained that spectators pelted them with stones and bricks and threatened them with guns and knives after a match against Strand United.

In August the same year a Mossel Bay player was stabbed, his captain hit in the face with a brick, and the team's manager assaulted by angry Groot Brakrivier supporters.

In September 2004 the president of the Kuils Rivier rugby club, Eddie Gurah, was suspended for life after being found guilty of repeatedly hitting and kicking Hamiltons player Angus McKenzie, even after McKenzie had collapsed to the ground.

In November last year a match between Mossel Bay's Barbarians and Oudtshoorn's Bridgeton ended in chaos when one player attacked another, and supporters from both sides joined in.

The referee was taken to hospital with a stab wound to the head, and the Barbarians players were trapped in their changing room for more than an hour before being escorted away by police.

Administrators have expressed concern: three years ago the then-SA Rugby Football Union's manager of club rugby, Hein Giliomee, said the ongoing violence meant club rugby was losing players, referees and spectators, and that "thugs" should be removed from the game.

A year later, in the wake of the Gurah incident, the then Western Cape MEC for Sport Chris Stali announced an official inquiry into club rugby violence, and threatened to call in the police as a "final resort" to prevent club rugby in the Western Cape from falling apart.

Boland president Jackie Abrahams said in reaction that 2 367 club matches had been played since March that year and violence had occurred at "only 32" of them.

The inquiry went ahead anyway, and though it has not yet completed its work, it last year produced an interim report.

The report said statistics did not show that violence was endemic in the Boland, while there were only "limited occurrences" in the South Western Districts, a region which includes Mossel Bay.

While there was no single reason for the violence, alcohol abuse was probably the major cause of spectator violence, the report said.

In the Boland, clubs generally came from poor communities where alcohol abuse was rife.

"Also, a major factor is where there is little or no control over the sale of alcohol at grounds, with spectators bringing alcohol into grounds or arriving in an inebriated state," the report said.

Another major cause of violence was the "win at all cost" attitude of many clubs and players, which inevitably rubbed off on spectators, leading to overt aggression and violence.

"The racial divide is still great and this adds to tensions between clubs, players and supporters and often is reflected in attitudes of hostility, abuse and conflict on match days," the report said.

It said more work had to be done to build relationships between clubs and players from different communities.

It also recommended a "concerted programme" of investment, education and capacity building that addressed the lack of specialised rugby facilities in poor communities."

It also said spectators should be educated to respect referees' decisions - "irrespective of how unhappy they are". - Sapa