Last Saturday’s defeat to an honest yet unimpressive Welsh team wrapped up a highly forgettable year for the Springboks – the worst year in a decade, and arguably longer. If life and rugby (excuse the redundancy) are cyclical then we are decidedly (or perhaps hopefully) at the very bottom of a cycle in our nation’s most globally successfully team sport, and transformation is to blame for this slump. Yes, the problem with South African rugby is transformation, but it is not as the slew of old world social media and armchair warriors emboldened by their brandewyn would have you believe. South Africa has lost ground in the rugby arms race because we have failed to transform, modernize, and capitalize on the many areas of potential competitive advantage available to us. And, to paraphrase Prof Leon Megginson, it is not the strongest of the species that survives but the most adaptable. South African rugby has simply failed to adapt – on the pitch, in the boardroom, in every respect, and has thus put itself in danger of going the way of the Dodo.
Three significant mistakes have been made since readmission, namely: taking rugby away from the national broadcaster; centering our systems on talent rather than education; neglecting the majority as a source of growth. The ills currently being suffered by the Springboks being the sequelae of these oversights.
During the 2011 World Cup the SABC’s Business Intelligence Marketing unit reported that 3 448 050 people watched the game against Fiji – a Saturday game – versus 591 288 viewers – this which is nearly 60% of the total DSTV premium subscribers so it is safe to assume that there is saturation in that market. This means that, in failing to include the public broadcaster, SARU loses access to AT ALEAST 3 000 000 (allowing for fair overlap) rugby viewers, this is for all competitions. The corollary is then that whatever amount of money that would translate to in sponsorship and television rights is being foregone. It is difficult to then try to imagine the cumulative impact that would have reverberated through the entire system during the period since Supersport secured exclusive rights of the game at all levels. Yes, there is much to be said about the part that the SABC played in surrendering the game to a niche audience in simply not being up to par in the quality and range of their offering, however, the responsibility of safe-guarding the accessibility and growth of the game to even our basest citizens remains with SARU and they must thus shoulder the bulk of the blame. The importance of exposing out national and even first class game to aspirant and potential young players cannot be overstated. Quite simply, SARU completely betrayed their mandate to grow the sport in black communities in favour of short-term, lazy, and unimaginative financial gains. It is barely worth considering what the potential impact has been on the long-term financial health of the South African game but, considering that South Africa is responsible for well over half of SANZAR’s total revenues it stands to reason that we have weakened our long-term financial health and negotiating position.
Our country’s greatest gift has become our curse. South African rugby is literally the kid who was always bigger than the other kids growing up and thus simply bullied his way around the rugby pitch. The problem, as is always the case with those kids is that they never spend much time developing the rest of their skill set and, as a result, find themselves at a disadvantage when everyone else hits their growth spurt and then starts gym. Now everyone has matured and, without our size advantage, we are devoid of ideas. It is a debilitating failure that we have not invested in the expertise of our country’s coaches. The consistent excellence of a system is far more dependent on the intellectual capital at its disposal than the talent available to it. Talent is ubiquitous. Given enough time to prepare, a system with superior will consistently outperform its more talent-rich competitors. Sadly, this is not something that can be fixed overnight and requires long-term planning. Germany embarked on a similar project in the mid-2000s in promoting a skill intensive development philosophy for its young players – the results in their case speak for themselves. It’s the reason that half of the teams that compete in the 6 Nations are coached by Kiwis, because rugby has evolved past the top teams being separated by physicality to games being decided by the collective Rugby IQ occupying the coach’s box on either side. Until we prioritize the education of our instructors at junior club and school level we will continue to suck hind tit to nations who watch on in envy at the overflow of talent at tournaments such as the Craven Week and Grant Khomo week.
The Blitzbokke and the Proteas are shining lights in our national game currently as codes that exemplify the effect that embracing diversity can have on our sporting landscape. Various races and cultures each have aspects that they can contribute to the betterment of South African sport and it is lamentable to the extreme that South African Rugby as a whole – at every level – continues to view transformation as a hurdle rather than as an opportunity. The paradigm is horribly flawed. 29% of the 887 players who have ever played for the Springboks come from 10 schools in the country. This distortion in representation has become even more pronounced as the quasi-professionalization of the schoolboy game has resulted in those schools that have dedicated the most resources to the rugby programs being rewarded with success both in their season results and the number of pupils who ascend in the representative ranks. This has the unfortunate consequence of an ever more homogenous rugby environment where “outsiders” end up being forced on the system. This homogeneity has had an adverse effect in promoting diversity in views and imagination. The number of Seabelo Senatlas, Sikhumbuzo Notshes, and Lukhanyo Ams that our country could unearth and polish with just a modicum of effort in truly investing in establishing the game in areas of the country where kids have literally never heard the name Bryan Habana before let alone experienced the game of rugby in any form.
South African rugby needs to transform, truly transform if it is to survive let alone become the most venerable exponent of the global game. I pray for the day that the National side meets New Zealand in front of packed stadium reverberating with Xhosa, Zulu, and Sotho songs booming from 10s of thousands of voices with millions more watching on free-to-air television with a blackline (no typo) expressing themselves in the manner that comes naturally to black kids. That Springbok team would be extremely difficult to beat. Amen.