Johannesburg - Of the 44 players who will contest the SuperSport Rugby Challenge final in Oudtshoorn this afternoon, 10 will be coloured - seven of them from Griquas and three from the Pumas.
In a competition in which the mission statement is unearthing black talent and taking rugby to the community stadiums of disadvantaged areas, a 22% black representation is hardly what the tournament sponsors had in mind.
Ironically, Griquas president Jannie Louw was the man who helpfully brought the skimping on numbers to light by reportedly laying a formal complaint about the lack of representation in the Pumas’ team that beat the Sharks XV in last Friday’s semi-final.
Truth be told, the Pumas’ fielding a team straight out of the mid-1990s is no surprise at all for a team whose bosses played hooker Gert van Schalkwyk, part of the Waterkloof Four, after he was convicted of beating a homeless man to death in 2001.
But given that Louw is the same guy who earlier this year dismissed one of his players for waving the old South African flag at a team-building event as a joke, and didn’t feel backward when banning two young coaches from coaching the Griquas junior teams because they supported the All Blacks, it’s a little tough to make the leap to his having suddenly become an advocate for transformation.
The logical conclusion to make would be that Louw was playing his part in trying to destabilise the opposition for the final.
But by trying to force the Pumas to pick more black players in their squad for the final could be read as a belief that more black players is equal to a weaker opposition.
Given how many so-called traditional rugby fans still hold that view, that’s not even the point here.
The point is how quickly it took the provincial unions to manipulate the SuperSport Rugby Challenge to their own selfish needs at the expense of the tournament’s own objectives.
Should the Pumas - who during the recent presidential elections were one of two provincial unions who had refused to sign SA Rugby’s transformation objectives document - win on Sunday, it will be entirely against the spirit of the competition.
Yet they will gleefully pick up the R500 000 winner’s cheque for a tournament with aims to which they clearly don’t subscribe.
Teams like Griquas and Pumas have done, and probably always will do, well in a second-tier competition like this because they can field their full-strength Currie Cup sides (the average ages of their teams are 27 and 26, respectively).
This is unlike the bigger provincial unions, who chop and change their line-ups by fielding a combination of out-of-form or recently injured Super Rugby players and junior players, some of the latter having been in school as recently as last year.
But signs that the unions were starting to pervert the way the tournament was structured began earlier, when the unions decided to have their home games in their traditional stadiums instead of in surrounding townships.
While the competition is the only other first-class level tournament during Super Rugby, the franchises in that competition have also used it as a plaything of sorts, where they have loaded their teams with Super Rugby talent at will, either to ready them for the return of the senior competition or to burgle easy points to make the playoffs in the junior tournament.
The match between the Lions and the Bulls at Raiders last month had a combined 37 players from the two squads with Super Rugby experience. It’s not bad fare to watch for free at a small stadium, but it’s completely against the intended spirit of the tournament.
The tournament’s objectives are clearly outlined: it’s development-based and has to take in community venues such as the Sisa Dukashe Stadium (Mdantsane), the Wolfson Stadium (Port Elizabeth) and the KaNyamazane Stadium (Mpumalanga). If teams have no interest in abiding by those rules, they must rather not play in protest, instead of lining up for the prize money.
Defending champions Western Province have embraced it, appearing in five of the eight triple-headers held on Sundays last year with their coach, John Dobson, drilling the history of those venues into the players.
But in a game in which attempts to transform are routinely met with disingenuous countermeasures by the unions, it’s taken less than two seasons to turn the SuperSport Rugby Challenge into something it isn’t.
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