Rainbow Nation embraces heroes

 

Jake White and his World Cup-winning Springbok team returned to South Africa yesterday not only as national heroes but also with their government's belief in them as worthy representatives of the Rainbow Nation seemingly restored.

Though their 15-6 victory over England in the final in Paris had left them on top of the pile in terms of international rugby, they knew an uncertain future awaited them at home. A triumph that should have ushered in a new era of Springbok domination instead seemed to be the end of a brief golden age with plans afoot to instigate dramatic change in 2008.

In mid-year, there had been suggestions in the Afrikaans media that next year's South African team, having included just two players of colour for the World Cup final, would have as many as 10 black players in the starting XV.

White, meanwhile, was harshly criticised for perceived anti-transformation attitudes by both ANC politicians and SA Rugby executives. "If Jake White goes today, South African rugby will be better off," Butana Khompela, the firebrand head of parliament's portfolio committee on sport, told a Cape Town radio station days before the final.

"I've been saying for a long time that because of the passionate hate that he has; I think his removal as coach is long overdue," said Komphela, who before they left had threatened to have the passports of the Springbok team withdrawn to prevent them playing in Europe. Sure enough, Khompela's anger had subsided enough for him to attend the final at SA Rugby's expense, dressed in a Springbok jersey.

Since that victory in the final, however, the nation has undergone a sea change in mood and by the time the Springboks flew into Johannesburg early yesterday morning, such ill-feeling was a memory. Thousands of supporters of all races flocked to OR Tambo International Airport, with black fans leading the celebrations by toyi-toying (a dance used during the demonstrations against apartheid) and singing.

Overnight, the president Thabo Mbeki had come out in strong support of White and the team. "It would be odd that, in the moment of victory, which comes after a long period of preparation, you say, 'Thank you for your services White, goodbye'," Mbeki had told a radio station predominantly catering for black listeners.

"Here is this team that went through the tournament without losing a game. We end up with the player of the year, the coach of the year and the team of the year. Drop the coach - why?" Mbeki said.

The deputy minister of sport, Gert Oosthuizen, was one of those waiting at the airport. "When you left before the tournament, the government requested you to not only bring back the Cup, but to prove to the world that as South Africans we are united in our diversity," Oosthuizen said.

The group general manager of the Springboks' chief sponsors, Sasol, was also among the dignitaries. Bheki Khumalo was Mbeki's long-serving spokesperson and his views not only have sway in terms of the millions of rand Sasol pumps into SA rugby, but also because he is well-connected to the ruling elite. "It would seem totally unnecessary if we win the World Cup, then the next month we say the coach who did not lose a game at the World Cup must go."

As regards the players, the veteran prop Os du Randt, who joins the Australians John Eales, Tim Horan and Jason Little as the only two-time winners of the World Cup, is going off to retirement on the family farm, the rest of the players are keen to continue their international careers.

The fact that many of them will be based overseas next year is a stumbling block, but it seems SA Rugby is on the verge of perpetuating the class of 2007. "The key word here is one of enhancement," the SA Rugby managing director Jonathan Stones said. "We must build on what we've attained."