Branded as still too white, South Africa’s Rugby World Cup squad was given a public farewell by flag-waving fans in an attempt to drum up support for a team that has won the showpiece twice but hasn’t won over many of it’s countrymen.
Coach Heyneke Meyer leads a squad of 31 to the tournament in Britain amid criticism over its racial makeup. Only nine of them are non-whites.
Meyer, in particular, has been singled out for what critics perceive as his reluctance to give black players a chance more than 20 years after apartheid ended.
The fact that nine of the 31 players aren’t white suggests that Meyer only just met an unofficial quota that 30 per cent of the squad should be non-white.
While supporters gathered at a hotel complex in Johannesburg to wave flags and sing the multi-language national anthem, there has recently been an anti-Springboks sentiment among other South Africans not seen since the team was all-white and an extension of the apartheid regime before 1992.
Aware of that, sports minister Fikile Mbalula, who is black, asked the crowd in Johannesburg – and the entire country – to back the team.
“We are proud of this nation, and that is why I’m saying to South Africa, black and white, purple and gold, stand behind the Springboks,” said Mbalula, who wore a green and gold Springboks T-shirt as he revved up the fans.
Last month, South Africa’s main trade union accused Meyer of racist selection policies, and said several black players complained to it, although no players spoke out publicly.
A political party went to court to try and stop the team from going to the World Cup because it had too few blacks, who make up 80 per cent of the population.
Black former players and the coach of the Springboks at the last World Cup, Peter de Villiers, have claimed Meyer favours white players.
In the midst of the Rugby Championship last month, in which South Africa lost all three of its games, Meyer defended himself by saying he doesn’t see colour, only rugby players.
The negativity even provoked the president of the South African Rugby Union, himself black, to angrily respond to the allegations rugby hasn’t changed from a white sport in what he called “an open letter to South Africa.”
“Not one of those players selected himself, and yet there are those who wish them ill, and even to fail, as some form of protest against rugby and what they perceive to be our transformation record,” Oregan Hoskins wrote.
“Let us get one thing absolutely clear: Our sport is massively transformed from where it was in 1992.”
The union has always maintained that in a complicated environment like South African rugby, it takes time to change a sport previously shunned by black people – and that there has been progress.
Wearing their Springboks blazers, some of the black players addressed the supporters in Johannesburg, many of whom slipped out of work early to see the team off.
“I’m definitely still proud that people believe in us,” said Bryan Habana, who has played over 100 Tests and is the Springboks’ record try-scorer.