Saru must modernise to level the playing field

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THERE were eight black players in the Western Province team which played the Lions in the Currie Cup final in October last year: six in the starting line-up and another two on the bench. The Lions had three black players in their squad. Western Province beat the Lions 19-16.

This fact is interesting in the light of a statement made to Parliament this week by Oregan Hoskins, president of the South African Rugby Union (Saru).

“In Saru we try to do the right thing,” he said. “I have to look at a white player and say we have to replace you with a black player because of transformation. It’s part of the job, but we will try to maintain a balance between competitiveness and transformation.”

He seemed to be saying that there is a trade-off between competitiveness and transformation and that a white player equals competitiveness and putting a black player in his place is just doing one’s political duty.

I can’t imagine Mr Hoskins, himself a man of colour, really believes this but nevertheless it is the philosophical basis of the policy with which Saru plans to shake up the racial demographics of rugby.

The plan is based on quotas: that is, persuading coaches to put more black players on the field. The subtext is that having more black players on the field might well result in a drop in standards but that this is the price one has to pay for playing rugby in SA.

Just one example of why this is an incorrect assumption is last year’s Currie Cup final.

This equation of whiteness with excellence is not confined to rugby; but rugby is the focus here and what the poverty of Saru’s vision reveals is how outdated is the thinking within it.

The Saru general council is mostly white, largely elderly and all male. As is the tendency with old boys’ clubs, they replicate themselves in subservient structures. White union presidents appoint white CEOs and white coaches who favour white players. It is narrow, self-affirming and exclusive.

In any organisation, it is critical that management reflects the diversity they want to create. It is too easy for a white manager to pick someone who looks and speaks like him, who went to the same school and the same church. He knows which buttons to press to get results.

A black African Springbok described to me how he experienced it: “White coaches trust their own kind. If someone of colour comes along, you have to work three times as hard for them to trust you. If you are a similar race, they will trust you. But for someone of colour, even though your record can speak for itself, you have to prove yourself again and again.”

Even though there was no increase in the number of black Springboks when Peter de Villiers was head coach, the fact that he was not white made a difference.

“Often your coach is a kind of mentor,” said the black Bok. “Someone you can lean on, tell him when you are stressed or whatever. It’s much easier to confide in a black coach than it is to confide in a white coach, because you feel he can relate to what you are saying.

“Some white coaches are good in that they give you the freedom to share what you are feeling but you don’t feel comfortable to share the deep stuff. Because we all struggle to break through to senior levels — both the coach and the players — so we are all going through the same thing.”

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the team which won the Currie Cup with eight black players last year is coached by SA’s only senior coach of colour.

Allister Coetzee has headed the Western Province Currie Cup coaching team for the past eight years and the Super Rugby team for the past six. He is our first and only black Super Rugby coach, an indictment in itself.

Coetzee claims he does not see colour. He simply chooses the best player, regardless of race. There is no doubt this is true.

But I also think that the fact that he is himself of colour gives confidence to black players. Race is still too loaded an issue for it not to affect perceptions of oneself and others, especially in the cauldron of intensely competitive, professional team sports.

If Saru is serious about wanting more black players on the field, they need to stop talk of quotas and focus on modernising themselves. That is where transformation is really needed.

 *This column first appeared in Business Day
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