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An Infamous Day

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Saturday 19th November a day of infamy in South African Rugby History?

It has been written and said many times how sport produces the greatest drama. Some observers of historical drama would argue that point. However the drama produced by the 2016 Springboks at the Stadio Artemio which is a football stadium was as shocking to our nation as any other form of drama.  The stadium has hosted one other international rugby union match, Italy played Australia on 20 November 2010, losing by a score of 14-32.

 SA Rugby president Mark Alexander, who on Saturday night took the unprecedented step of issuing a statement about the Bok performances just minutes after the final whistle had sounded in Florence, said this:

“The whole of South African rugby is extremely disappointed with this year’s Springbok results and deeply worrying aspects of the performances,” said Alexander. “It has not been good enough and no-one is pretending otherwise.”

Let us consider the alarming decline in the light of previous events.

November 23, 2002: England 53-3 South Africa, London

July 19, 2003: South Africa 16-52 New Zealand, Pretoria

July 15, 2006: Australia 49-0 South Africa, Brisbane

September 19, 2015: South Africa 32-34 Japan, Brighton

October 8, 2016: South Africa 15-57 New Zealand

The first two were under Rudolf Straeuli, the third under Jake White, who was recalled to South Africa to answer for this debacle. Sept. 2015 was under Heyneke Meyer and of course the latest shambles was under Allister Coetzee.

It is also worth understanding that up until the 1995 RWC the Springboks held a 21 – 18 win ratio against the All Blacks.

In 1993 the ANC decided to develop a Sport Policy and tabled a White Paper in 1996. This was updated in 2001 and a Ministerial Task Team was appointed in 2003. This has paved the way for a reduction in umbrella bodies down to two – The Department for Sport and Recreation (SRSA) and The South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC).

The White Paper issued in 2012 contains the most telling statement about sport and freedom of choice under the National Constitution:

“National Government

Role of the national Minister responsible for sport and recreation

The Minister of Sport and Recreation is the custodian of sport and recreation in South Africa. The Minister has the legislative powers to oversee the development and management of sport and recreation in the country. The Minister is therefore the principal authority of government with regards to all sport and recreation matters.”

This statement and its language indicate in general terms the attitude of the government towards its people and their subservient status.

This department does not set itself out to serve but to dominate.

The Constitutions and Charters of the many International Sport Federations declare themselves to be founded in a “bottom-up” structure. They make mention of the need to recognize their club structures and at the same time, their reliance on co-operation with government structures particularly those of both lower and higher education. The International federations therefore recognize that they may have no direct influence on government departments such as education. It is a shame that the South African Government does not hold the same reverse view.

Let us be very clear therefore that a sport federation such as the South African Rugby Union cannot ever be considered to be governed by a National Government Department such as is SRSA.

Sport has been developed over hundreds of years by people who have looked for ways to entertain themselves. Kicking a pig’s bladder around in a field was not invented by the government of a people. The formation of clubs, regional and national administrations was never reliant on any government. The financial support of such clubs and administrations has never been reliant on government taxpayers.

So how did this all contribute to the national disaster for which the President of SARU has found the need to apologise?  

I guess to be fair one must share the blame and lay the state of SA sport at the door of SRSA/SASCOC and then the individual federations e.g. SARU.

The sorry excuse about structures is nothing but a blind. Many other countries, England and France especially, have a similar structure to ours and do not lose to Japan and or Italy. Australia has a much smaller population, have very little interest in rugby union and yet are a top 3 country.

The much vaunted Indaba did nothing for me. It was significant that Mallett and Markgraaf refused invitations and apparently Peter de Villiers was not invited despite having a fairly good win ratio. The problem lies in the standard of coaching and lack of top sport science practitioners being involved along with coaches and players. Discarding coaches like Mallett, White and even de Villiers, whilst losing people like Erasmus and others is akin to diving off a tall building without a parachute or safety net.

As for Allister Coetzee, SARU must be allowed to make its own mind up about the competence of its appointees and not have to appease the Minister of Sport or SASCOC.

Critics are shut up and administrators with real experience and knowledge are chased out of their sports in favour of those politically astute and subservient. Incompetency is tolerated in favour of subservience and compliance. Appointments are made without scrutiny and a need for competence.

That said, the question must be asked – is he the right man for the job? He was not competent enough for Jake White in 2007 who called in Eddie Jones to spark the Bok backline. Jones was a hooker and Coetzee was a scrumhalf. Some say that the Stormers under Coetzee was our best Super Rugby franchise but what did they win? The Bulls are the only franchise to win this competition. When Coetzee was the coach of the Stormers it was recognised that their success was based on their stingy defense and the goalkicking ability of their kickers such as Demetri Catrakilis. Defense was the responsibility of Jacques Nienaber and when he left Coetzee was in effect sacked for “lacking ambition”. What of other contenders? Gert Smal, Rassie Erasmus and Brendan Venter would have been obvious choices. There are other options. In any event, to appoint a coach and then not have sufficient trust to allow him to select his own support staff speaks volumes as to trust and a skewed system. Then just a few months into his tenure, bring in more coaches is a statement of an original mistake. 

This is not just affecting the once hugely successful rugby fraternity but is happening in all sports. Some may survive due to the nature of their sport. Cricket, whilst being a “team sport”, is still reliant on the performance of individuals who by their excellence, will select themselves. It is therefore down to the coaching staff to hone skills and to prepare individuals for the mental test of high level competition. Other sports such as football, tennis and hockey have suffered due to a lack of understanding of all of the management skills needed to prepare a high class, successful squad of players. In some cases in our country, this requires political acumen as well as technical skill.

It is true that rugby has fallen into decline. In years gone by young players were found in not only the top schools many of which are private schools, but also in the ranks of the SA Defence Force and the universities. Both of the latter were regarded and presented themselves as clubs. This strengthened the quality of rugby being played throughout the club competitions. The advent of the professional era has been difficult to adapt to as provinces have become franchises and they have formed their own feeder systems ignoring club and other structures. The knock-on effect has been that of reducing the incentive to play club rugby which is now regarded as being social or community sport.

Structures need to be addressed, but that is the responsibility of each sporting federation which should not be looking over its shoulder to ensure that structures and personnel are changed to suit government approval. Changes must be planned to have a positive effect on a number of facets of all sports affected by professional status whilst making sure that mass participation is still a priority.  

South Africa can find its own way through this mess and can do so without simply adopting a New Zealand/All Black approach. Professional sport in America has its own way to facilitate a fair distribution of talent as do other countries. Great Britain has developed a way to incentivise professional sport and has produced amazing improvement in Olympic Sports. We need to study sport more professionally if we are to survive in the World of professional sport.

To achieve the aim or vision of “An Active and Winning Nation”, SRSA should be an agency encouraging and facilitating the ambitions of young people, their administrators, officials, coaches and mentors. It is not the role of this department to act as political commissars.

At the same time however, government and sport bodies must work hand-in-hand to improve the standards at schools and universities. Sport federations have the knowledge and skill to be able to train administrators, officials and coaches within the education fraternity. Such collaboration would offer jobs as well as higher standards of competition.

I finish this piece by repeating again the almost magical words of our late, iconic President, Nelson Mandela:


 Verbatim Transcript

"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you

I am happy to be with you tonight at the first Laureus World Sports Award. Sport has the power to change the world. [applause] It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.

The heroes standing with me are examples of this power. They are valiant not only in the playing field, but also in the community, both local and international. They are champions and they deserve the world’s recognition.


Together they represent an active, vigorous Hall of Fame. A Hall of Fame that goes out into the world, spreading help, inspiration and hope.

Their legacy will be an international community where the rules of the game are the same for everyone, and behaviour is guided by fair play and good sportsmanship. I ask you now to rise and join me in commending the original inductees into the World Sports Academy Hall of Fame."


Nelson Mandela was an extraordinary human being. His speeches indicate a belief in the good of all men. He recognised the evil of apartheid and the greed it had bred in many people across the racial divide. He sought to unite us and was openly delighted by the effect on our people that victory for South Africa's Springboks had achieved in 1995.

It is my firm belief that he did not intend for government intervention in sport to the extent that the federations lost their rights under our National Constitution no matter how covert such actions become. The SRSA NSP should reflect verbatim input from each federation in order to reflect direct buy-in. SRSA cannot dictate to clubs or their administrative structures as to how they should behave or perform. Clubs in many regions operate in fear of closure due to the way that they are being treated by municipal authorities. That must end. 

Some may question this inference! Why is it that studio pundits such as Nick Mallett, Jean de Villiers, Naas Botha and Victor Matfield (all Springboks), suggest that there is more to the need for structural change than just the appointment of a coach or elections of officials and yet will not openly speak their minds?   


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