SA Rugby Union chief executive Jurie Roux and president Mark Alexander at a press conference in Dublin. Photo: Paul Childs/Action Images via Reuters
SA Rugby Union chief executive Jurie Roux and president Mark Alexander at a press conference in Dublin. Photo: Paul Childs/Action Images via Reuters

’Talk is cheap’ : SA Rugby cannot wait until 2030 to enforce real transformation

By Ashfak Mohamed Time of article published Jul 23, 2020

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OPINION – Peter de Villiers was ridiculed by many of his detractors for some of his weird and wonderful utterances at press conferences.

Of course, some of that prejudice was down to racism, as De Villiers didn’t conform to what was ‘traditionally’ expected from a Springbok coach.

“Talk is cheap and money buys the whisky” was an oft-repeated phrase from the Paarl-born mentor in explaining how he will try to inspire his players.

But this time around, ‘talk is cheap’ applies to South African rugby in general.

It was interesting to hear SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux speak about the spotlight on Black Lives Matter on Tuesday, and what he felt about captain Siya Kolisi’s emotive comments on his Instagram page – where the skipper spoke about how he had to conform to a whole new culture, and “felt stupid and embarrassed” for not understanding the Afrikaans calls in his early years.

“Siya is his own man. It’s through his own character and hard work that he’s got himself into the position he currently finds himself in. He’s led us to a World Cup victory. It’s not my or SA Rugby’s place to dictate to him what he can or cannot say about an issue like Black Lives Matter. He’s shown enough leadership and commands enough respect to tell his own story,” Roux said.

“I, for one, would never tell him what to say. He must have his own opinion, and he’s exercised expressing that.”

Roux came across as utterly condescending with those remarks, whether it was his intention or not. Why would he even mention that he would “never tell him (Kolisi) what to say”, and that “he must have his own opinion” on BLM?

But of even greater concern was how Roux addressed the issue as a whole, and how it affects South African rugby. He started off by highlighting the supposed successes of Saru with regards to transformation, saying that the organisation “have been very good at acknowledging the sins and the wrongs of the past”.

Saru CEO Jurie Roux came across as utterly condescending with his remarks on Siya Kolisi's BLM comments, whether it was his intention or not. Photo: Masi Losi

The CEO went on to talk about how vital it was for rugby to “let people tell their stories, but more importantly, we’ve got to listen to those stories and then hear what they’re saying. That’s always been the issue, letting people voice what it is they believe is wrong. We’ve got to listen to those stories, but more importantly, we’ve got to hear what they are saying.

“We’ve got to continue dialogue and we’ve got to figure it out together, and determine if we need to adapt things to help figure it out, then absolutely we have to do that.

“What we should not do is steer away from the uncomfortable conversations, and the things people refer to as the awkward truths, because it’s the realities of our lives.”

Does that mean Roux has not been listening to those stories up to now? He has been at the coalface of the sport for most of his professional life since rugby unity 28 years ago, at Maties, Western Province and SA Rugby.

So, there is no way that he hasn’t, at the very least, been made aware of the unhappiness of many black players and coaches across the South African rugby spectrum since readmission to the Test arena in 1992.

Many such situations were in the spotlight because it involved the Springbok team, but the real problems that have held back true transformation occur in two areas – Super Rugby playing opportunities and contracts, as well as head coaches from Currie Cup Premier Division upwards.

Roux spoke on Tuesday about “36 dimensions” that make up Saru’s revised Strategic Transformation Development Plan 2030.

In this plan, SA Rugby speaks glowingly about how it has achieved and surpassed a number of transformation targets agreed within the EPG (Eminent Persons Group) Report that provides feedback to the Minister of Sport and the parliamentary portfolio committee on sport.

But the devil is in the detail. While there have been significant strides made at junior and administrative levels, it is at the most important playing and coaching levels where there is still much work to do.

Just last year, despite Kolisi being the captain, then-coach Rassie Erasmus failed to achieve the transformation target of 50 percent at the World Cup – coming in at 38 percent.

In Super Rugby, a player target of 45 percent has consistently been missed, with 31 percent in 2017, 31 percent in 2018 and 36 percent in 2019.

Things aren’t much better in the Currie Cup Premier Division, with the same 45 percent target not reached, with 31, 34 and 35 percent achieved over the last three years – and the target for 2030 is 60 percent in Super Rugby and Currie Cup.

When it comes to coaching, only one member of Erasmus’ Bok coaching staff, Mzwandile Stick, was black.

Springbok assistant coach Mzwandile Stick during his squad training at St Peters College in Sunninghill, Johannesburg. Photo: Dumisani Sibeko

A step lower down, all four SA Super Rugby head coaches and two PRO14 head coaches are white.

In the Currie Cup Premier Division, all seven teams’ head coaches were white.

These statistics paint the real picture of where transformation in South African rugby is at.

And we are not mentioning other major problems such as salary disparities between black and white players, the lengths of contracts, and lack of black directors of rugby, high performance managers and chief executives at Super Rugby and Currie Cup Premier Division teams, which are some of the issues highlighted by 49 former players and current coaches when they showed support for Proteas fast bowler Lungi Ngidi last week.

It is all about trust, and that has not been forthcoming in South African rugby since unity.

So, the time for talking is well and truly over. Roux stated that Erasmus, now as the director of rugby, has a plan to fast-track black coaches.

But, as De Villiers – who has battled to get a top rugby job since his Bok tenure – said before, “talk is cheap and money buys the whisky”…

* Ashfak Mohamed is the Cape Regional Sports Co-Ordinator at Independent Media. Follow him on Twitter: @ashfakmohamed

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