With the Autumn internationals coming to an end, I thought it relevant to write a post about rugby, specifically about the problems with South African rugby at the moment and my experience playing over there. Now obviously I'm not an ex or current international rugby player nor am I a commentator/rugby analyst so please don't read into this too much. This is merely my opinion based on what I have seen over the 2016/17 season. A few years back we were used to seeing a Springbok team that was a dominant force in world rugby, world champions on 2 occasions, once in 1995 and then again in 2007. The only team to top this achievement is of course New Zealand with 3 world titles under their belt.
It may then, come as a surprise that South Africa's form in recent years has been nothing short of poor. In the 2016 season they recorded their first ever home loss to Ireland, a first loss in Argentina, an absolute spanking from New Zealand and England and even a soul crushing defeat to Italy, who no offence to Italy, are not renowned for being up there with the best of the tier 1 nations. The 'formidable' Springbok lost 8 of their 12 test matches over the 2016 period.
With this many losses it doesn't seem to just be the result of a team playing badly and experiencing a dip in form but a problem that goes much deeper, right to the heart of the foundations of South African rugby. There is a big economic problem in world rugby at the moment and the likes of South Africa, the Pacific Islands and the super rugby franchises are all suffering. This problem is being caused by big money Euro, Pound Stirling and Yen offers in Europe and Japan, particularly from France and Japan. This is causing a loss of talented players, the more 'well off financially' nations are having the pick of the crop it would seem. For example in South Africa, the likes of Schalk Brits, Bakkies Botha, Francois Louw, Morne Steyn, Bryan Habana and Willie le Roux have all moved to play abroad over the last few years, following the money and lets face it, opting to play within better structured competitions as the super rugby franchise is in dire state at the moment. This has not helped South African rugby in the slightest but it is just a scratch on the surface as to why they are in such poor form at the moment.
20 years after rugby became professional, South Africa still has an amateur-days system where each one of the provincial teams gets a say in major decisions. This generally seems to allow the people overseeing each club to vote for decisions that will affect the club and not benefit the national side.
Coaching seems to be another problem as well. South Africa does not have its own coaching system like the RFU, instead they rely on World Rugby's level 1,2 and 3. There has not been enough money invested into education of coaches and national structures. This in turn affects the coaching at even a grass roots level. players skills are not formed as well as they should be at a young age such as within the RFU systems.
Moving back to the problem with players and the lack of depth in talent, It really hit home when South Africa played their first game of their Autumn internationals this year against Ireland. I honestly could maybe name 2 of the players on the pitch. This seems to be a real problem at the moment, all of their 'world class' and renowned players have moved abroad and are no longer eligible to play for the national team and quite frankly if I were them, playing in the likes of the Aviva premiership where there is so much talent and world class rugby being played week in week out, I would question why anyone would want to move back to play for the Springboks at all. Thus we have a young, very in-experienced and unknown team representing their country which is great in a way because it could bode well for the future to give these players the experience now. It could also backfire as theres a chance that the players are being exposed to too high a level of rugby too early, are they being thrown into the deep end without the proper knowledge and know how to deal with it? And will this have a detrimental effect in the long run to these players confidence. In my opinion they need a complete overhaul of the coaching system, investigations have to go into how the head coach is managing his team. New systems and cultures need to be established fast and they need some experienced players, those who have gone to World Cups and been in major competitions to try and steady the sinking ship that is South African rugby at the moment.
Anyway, after all of that negativity I thought we could end with a positive that's based on my experience on tour in South Africa. In my last year of school, we were lucky enough to go on tour, encompassing Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. The trip itself didn't get off to a very good start with half of us not being allowed onto the plane due to booking complications. This left the other half of us feeling very smug as we touched down in sunny Johannesburg a day earlier than the rest. After this however, it was relatively smooth sailing. Now I'm not going to go into too much detail about the whole trip, partly because it was 2 years ago and I can't remember it in a huge amount of detail and also we'd be here for weeks but I will list some of the highlights. first things first, we won 3/3 of our fixtures, we were lucky enough to go on a safari, had many a 'braai' (the South African equivalent of a barbecue) and were accommodated by host families each time we played a new school. This is the part that I really want to touch on because I think it optimises what rugby is all about in South Africa. At first when I was taken in to one of the homes that I was going to be staying at, I have to be honest I was very underwhelmed to say the least because obviously it was not at all what I was used too. This was essentially a corrugated iron shack on an abandoned air force base. You can imagine my reservations.
It actually however, turned out to be a very humbling experience. The family were so nice and welcoming to me and so willing to share everything they had even when it wasn't a lot, the guy who's family I was staying with even gave up his bed for me when we had a match the following day. The family went above and beyond what they had too and offered me so much when they had so little to give. They even gave me gifts to take home. In all this is a memory that has stayed with me for a long time and at the time I didn't fully appreciate it but now, looking back on it, It really hits you hard, such is their culture to be so giving and kind and you just think why can't we be like that back home when we have so much more to give. This point was proven yet again when we visited a Township, some of these people literally have a wooden hut no bigger than a garden shed and it is not uncommon to find that there are no luxuries such as beds, sofas and chairs but rather a raggedy old pillow and a few blankets on the floor that could have been gathered from wherever they could get their hands on them. Yet these people welcome you into their homes and their lives and are willing to share their stories and what little belongings they have, asking for nothing in return. It really left me shocked and I still am today, that people can be so humble and so tough within. This showed on the rugby pitch too, some of these lads wouldn't have eaten properly, slept properly and would have had to walk miles to school because they didn't have any parents driving them and yet they were able to go out there onto the pitch and give it their all and play the game for the enjoyment of it, celebrating with us afterwards.
This is what I think we need to see more of in the South African side today, the willingness to just go out and play rugby, enjoy the game and remember their roots that saw the national side claim an outstanding victory in the 1995 World Cup. That was a team that came together, that were physically and internally very tough and that played for each other.
Cheers, until next time!