The first Muslim Springbok

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IMG_0499RAMADAN starts on Thursday and that poses a challenge for one of the players on whom SA is relying this Saturday to salvage a bit of national pride from this year’s disappointing Super Rugby campaign.

Nizaam Carr, the first Muslim to have captained a Super Rugby team — last week against the Sharks — will this Saturday have to fill the big boots of Duane Vermeulen, who has been forced out with a neck injury. If the Stormers beat the Brumbies, they have a shot at making the Super Rugby finals.

Carr will enter the fray on an empty stomach. He will have been up before dawn to down a protein shake and some steak and pasta but by the time he runs out onto the field at Newlands at 5pm, he will not have eaten for several hours. Over the next month, he is likely to lose between 8kg and 12kg.

It is tough, he says, but manageable. He doesn’t feel that it affects his performance. His faith provides all the push he needs.

It is hard to believe that Carr is just 24. Rugby has both brought him fantastic opportunity and required exceptional emotional adaptability and resilience. His was not the usual path to the high road via a traditional rugby school. He grew up in Mitchell’s Plain.

His family later moved to Crawford and he attended Alexander Sinton High, a good state school but not one that offered rugby. He played on Saturdays for the Primrose club and, at the age of 15, he was spotted by a scout from Bishops and offered a bursary.

Bishops, the home of Anglicanism and old money, was worlds away from what he was used to and at first he struggled to fit in. But over the four years he was there, he learnt to take advantage of the fantastic facilities on offer.

At Alexander Sinton, there would be 45 kids in a class, whereas at Bishops, there might be 10. More than that, he told me, “they opened up my eyes to how successful you could be if you just worked hard”. After school, he sailed into the University of Cape Town, where he played for the Ikey Tigers in the Varsity Cup. From there, he was recruited into the Western Province Under-19s and Under-21s and, eventually the Currie Cup and Super Rugby teams.

Throughout, he has had to perform the difficult balancing act of remaining true to his religious beliefs while proving himself a team player in a very different culture.

At Bishops, he says, he had to explain why he could eat only halaal food. Another challenge he has had to grapple with is the drinking culture in rugby. It was hard at first, he says, and he felt he didn’t fit in. But he learnt to adapt and now happily sits through team dinners nursing a coke while his teammates get merry. He recognises that it is part of team building, he says, and he can’t slink away.

His teammates ensure he doesn’t feel the odd man out. After they won the Currie Cup last year, he took them all to a mosque and then to a halaal restaurant.

What he is desperate for now, like every other player in Super Rugby, is a spot in the Rugby World Cup squad. Carr, who last year became the first Muslim in the democratic era to pull on a Springbok jersey, is competing against a plethora of excellent loose forwards.

Carr’s articulate and confident defence of his religious rights highlights the question of freedom of religion. Christianity is central to South African rugby. Most teams pray before games. Some players and coaches offer a nod to God at media conferences.

Players and coaches have told me that prayers are about asking for protection from injury for both sides. And it promotes team spirit.

That’s all fine as long as it is acknowledged that the supreme being appears in different forms to different people — if they believe in one at all — and conformity to a particular religion doesn’t become a prerequisite for inclusion.

As far as openness in religion goes, I’d say that young Nizaam Carr offers a good example. He doesn’t proselytise but he does try to educate people about Islam: for instance, that the impression created by some media that it is a religion of extremists who yearn to join groups such as Islamic State is wrong.

This year, he and a partner opened a sports academy in Lansdowne. For now, it offers only Grades 8 and 9 and there are just 45 pupils. The academic curriculum runs from 8am to 3pm. After that there is intensive training in rugby, soccer and cricket. He is in charge of the rugby. Talented kids from poor backgrounds get scholarships and his own sponsor provides all the kit for free. It’s about giving back, he says.

His academy, the Cape Sports Academy, is not only for Muslims. “We have boys from all over,” he says proudly. “We have an African kid and a Jewish one.”

 *This column first appeared in Business Day
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