Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, TONDERAI CHAVHANGA talks about being a black Springbok, whether the PRO14 will benefit SA rugby and how South Africa can bounce back against Australia in Bloemfontein.
Sport24 asked: Where do the Boks stand after their abysmal defeat to the All Blacks?
Tonderai Chavhanga: After South Africa’s record defeat against New Zealand in Albany (the heaviest in Springbok history) plenty of questions are still ringing in many peoples’ minds. Hopefully the management team and playing group can put their heads together and come up with solutions. It’s very disappointing for this particular group to hold such a poor record because, up until the All Black clash, they had done phenomenal work in terms of restoring pride in the Bok jersey. However, when playing against the All Blacks one lapse of concentration will find you standing behind your poles. The Boks started well with the first scrum and you could see everybody was pumped up, but they didn’t pitch up psychologically to deal with the All Black threat for the full 80 minutes. After conceding a few tries, heads dropped. South Africa’s set-piece failed to function and they were found wanting on attack and defence. Prior to the Albany Test, the attitude the Boks brought on defence was absolutely phenomenal. We needed players like Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi, Malcolm Marx and Tendai Matawarira to provide the impetus and make big hits and big runs more consistently. Ultimately we saw against Argentina, Australia and the British and Irish Lions that New Zealand can be put under pressure if the opposition holds onto the ball for a sustained period of time. I felt the Boks missed a trick by not keeping the ball in hand more and putting them under pressure, which would have resulted in the visitors getting penalties or line breaks. I agree with John Mitchell who said that “you can’t premeditate your exit and fall into the trap of giving the opposition the ball back.” When playing against the All Blacks, you don’t want to be giving them much ball. The key is to play what you see and put them under pressure with your attacking shape. Because the Boks didn’t get their set-piece right, they couldn’t really put the All Blacks under pressure in any other way. South African teams at large tend to struggle when the set-piece isn’t going well. When our forwards aren’t as dominant we retreat into our shell and the backline struggles to get into play.
Sport24 asked: In terms of the Bok backline what alterations would you make?
Tonderai Chavhanga: The back three of Andries Coetzee, Raymond Rhule and Courtnall Skosan have come in for criticism for their collective performance. Allister Coetzee has backed the back three for seven Tests, but one or two changes could bring about a difference. In my book, it’s always good to have a balance in the back three and it’s something the Springboks are missing at the moment. During my time at the Stormers, myself, Conrad Jantjes and Sireli Naqelevuki comprised the back three. Having a bigger player, in the form of the latter, that could do the hard yards brought balance to the side. S’busiso Nkosi has been added to the mix and he could provide the Boks with something special. Nkosi looks really hungry and he has been phenomenal this year. The 21-year-old is physical, is solid under the high ball and is resolute defensively. Some people have called for the inclusion of Springbok veteran JP Pietersen to add experience and solidity to the back three. Pietersen has proven over the years that he is a quality player. However, whatever decision is made has to be a long-term solution and not a quick-fix. I believe the Springboks must invest in players that will take them to the next Rugby World Cup and beyond. Ruan Combrinck who is four years younger than Pietersen could still be part of the Springboks’ World Cup plans, and he can count himself very unlucky not to be included. He underlined last year that he can prove an asset at fullback or on the wing with his big boot, physicality and finishing ability. Combrinck, who sustained a shoulder injury against Argentina in Salta last August, hasn’t got a look-in for the Boks since and didn’t really do anything to warrant being dropped. We need an enforcer in the back three so as to get things going.
Sport24 asked: What does it mean to you to be a black Springbok player?
Tonderai Chavhanga: The most important message that comes with being a black Springbok is that it reinforces the notion that rugby is for everyone. With each black Springbok that is selected and seen thriving in the green and gold jersey, thousands of black kids are inspired to take up the sport whether for fun or with the hope of one day also representing South Africa. For me, the message of inspiration and raising hope is most important. Playing for the Springboks was akin to climbing Mount Everest owing to where I came from. It was an incredible honour to have worn the Bok jersey (Chavhanga played four Tests for South Africa and scored six tries on debut). In terms of transformation, which is a touchy topic, it’s really sad to see the level of negativity associated to it. It has often been used to cause further division among people as opposed to being harnessed positively. In South Africa we talk about transformation so much and there are many negative connotations associated. No player wants to be selected based on skin colour. You want to be selected because you are the best and all players want to be treated equally. Unfortunately, even for those players of colour selected there will always be the quota tag hanging over their heads. There is so much pressure put on players of colour. Elton Jantjies, for argument’s sake, has played phenomenally well over the last year in particular, but it seems as though he has to prove himself every single weekend. I know it’s Super Rugby and Test Rugby, however, I feel players of colour constantly have to prove themselves worthy of their places and that’s really unfair. I really feel for players of colour when they have a bad game because they are held to a totally different standard. A number of talented players of colour have been lost in the system and haven’t gone all the way to the top. I’m not suggesting the players should be babied, but they have to be given every opportunity to succeed, and we must close the gap between Craven Week and U/19 and U/21 levels.
Sport24 asked: What is your assessment of the expanded PRO14 competition?
Tonderai Chavhanga: I believe the PRO14 is only to our advantage if the long-term plan is for all the South African teams to participate in the competition at some point. The current model of us having two teams in the PRO14 and four in Super Rugby doesn’t really make sense to me. We were struggling for results in Super Rugby and therefore the powers that be said that, because we are lacking depth, we must take out two teams. If that was the reasoning, it would have made sense for the best players from the Cheetahs and Kings to feed into the other South African Super Rugby teams so that we can compete with Australia and New Zealand. However, if the intention going forward is to have all our teams in the PRO14 then it would add up with so many South African rugby players in Europe. If we have a situation where all our teams are playing in Europe nothing should then exclude the overseas-based players from being selected for the Springboks. Meanwhile, the Cheetahs and Kings have experienced a baptism of fire in the infancy of their PRO14 campaigns and unfortunately it’s only going to get tougher. I played for the Newport Gwent Dragons and the toughest adaptation was the weather. The conditions were not conducive to the way I played. It’s extremely tough playing in Europe and the game is very much forward orientated and, if you possess light backs, it could be a struggle. The Cheetahs and Kings will improve as they get accustomed to the conditions, however, what worked for them in Super Rugby - throwing the ball around - cannot be easily replicated when you’re playing in 10 degrees and can hardly see your hands in front of you.
Sport24 asked: You suffered a spate of injuries. Why did you refuse to give up?
Tonderai Chavhanga: For me, giving up was never an option. No matter what circumstances came my way, I always knew that there would be a better day. The strength of my family and belief in god, kept me going when I hit some really tough times and wasn’t sure if I was ever going to play again. I was really fortunate that I had coaches who had faith in me and gave me opportunities to play. Jake White, in particular, afforded me an opportunity when not many other people would have. (When White was still the Sharks director of rugby, he offered Chavhanga free rehabilitation and a chance of launching a successful comeback). I kept grinding away and believing that things were going to get better. Whenever I was really playing well and felt that I was starting to reach the heights I would like to, injury intervened and I had to start from scratch. I would like to think that I could have played a few more games and had a longer career, but I’m grateful I got an opportunity to play rugby professionally and visit places I had never heard of as a young boy living in rural Zimbabwe. Rugby gave me a life I could never really have dreamed of and I’m certainly not someone who lives with regret. You must always make the best of what you have and when you dwell too much on the past, you fail to move forward. It’s crucial to have an exit plan from professional sport and equip yourself in any way you can because you may get injured, not be selected or might not be as good as you think you are. Things can change overnight and if you’re not prepared, life can smack you in the face.
Sport24 asked: Do you see the Boks bouncing back against Australia at home?
Tonderai Chavhanga: First and foremost, there’s no way the supporters can be more upset and disappointed about the last performance than the players and management themselves. It’s now about what the management and players are going to do about it. I really believe they are going to make the necessary changes and employ the right game plan to get us back to winning ways. In some of the previous Rugby Championship Tests, the Boks showed that they possess some good attacking players. They need to be given licence to run the ball, and I certainly hope they’re going to deploy more of a running game. Against Australia, South Africa cannot afford to pre-empt their exit strategies and take the ball through one or two phases and then kick it. The Boks have to play what they see in front of them. From a player’s perspective, I am sure the current personnel would much rather have ball in hand than just defend and employ the kick-chase. The Boks must back their skills.
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