Springboks captain Siya Kolisi shows off the Webb-Ellis trophy in Cape Town. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)
Springboks captain Siya Kolisi shows off the Webb-Ellis trophy in Cape Town. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

Transformation triumph sweeter than Springboks’ World Cup win

By Mark Keohane Time of article published Oct 9, 2020

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THE Springboks’ World Cup 2019 journey has been documented in a five-part series called ‘Chasing the Sun’. The first episode aired last Sunday and it was appropriate that transformation within the squad featured so prominently.

Transformation, in the true sense of the word, because the focus was as much on a mindset change as it was on the transformation of the sport.

For whatever reasons, transformation had been such an ugly word in South African sport, but it should be the most powerful word because, if applied correctly, it represents all that is good about sport in this country and all that should be inspiring about living in South Africa.

A few months ago, I wrote about the impact of Eduard Coetzee since his appointment as CEO at the Sharks.

Coetzee promotes ‘seeing colour’ and understanding diversity and embracing difference in culture, religion and race.

Coetzee is big on engagement, talk, discussion and being able to listen with the ease with which most people talk.

Springboks World Cup-winning coach and National Director of Rugby, Rassie Erasmus is cut from a similar cloth.

It is no coincidence that both men, born into a conservative white-South African upbringing, would do most of their growing up in an overseas rugby environment. Coetzee played in France for eight years, his children were born in France and he returned to South Africa a man of the world and inspired by the collective strength of diversity.

He had experienced it in Europe and knew he could make a difference to the rugby landscape in South Africa.

Equally, Erasmus, who spent two very important years as the Director of Rugby at Munster in Ireland.

Erasmus always had a liberal mind, in the way he thought about life, but it was in Ireland where he marched to maturity. He was out of his comfort zone, thrust into a very different way of life and he thrived.

Watching South African rugby from afar also allowed Erasmus to observe and not be immersed in a particular way of doing things.

He could see how much the game needed to transform if South African rugby was to have a secure playing future.

He returned to South Africa knowing that transformation was non-negotiable, but most significantly that every player, regardless of his colour, had to be given a voice to talk about his experience of transformation. Erasmus, before he could begin educating South African rugby players about how he saw a transformed Springboks team, had to make sure he had listened first.

Erasmus targeted transformation the moment he assembled his first squads.

Transformation was not something he just wanted discussed between administrators and politicians in the media. He, as coach, wanted that discussion to always be between him and his players. He also insisted that conversation happen between the players, in the open, without judgement and with the proviso that a conversation is only one when those who talk can also open their minds to listening.

Transformation was not the evil workings of politicians and neither was it the work of sporting administrators who had ‘sold out’ on their white culture and constitution.

Transformation was not about compromise. A transformed Springbok team’s goal included being number one in the world and winning the World Cup.

Erasmus was always going to pick a transformed squad and he felt that squad would be strong enough to win.

They did.

A Springbok team could not operate effectively if transformation, within the squad, was not addressed.

Erasmus turned every discussion on transformation into one done openly in front of the entire squad. There would be no agendas, no misinterpretation and no reinforcement of cultural cliques.

Transformation, said Erasmus, was not the sin in South African rugby. It was the solution.

‘Chasing the Sun’ showcases a triumph for South Africa that is so much greater than the winning of a World Cup.

@mark_keohane

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