Relations hit a new low in SA


Joe Humphreysreports that on the eve of the Tri-Nations the Springboks are in disarray

Plans to "Africanise" the Springboks have plunged South African rugby into a new managerial crisis on the eve of the Tri-Nations competition, and just three months ahead of the Rugby World Cup.

While South African club and national teams have been enjoying a rich vein of form, matters off the pitch have descended to near all-out war between coach Jake White and his employers, who are unhappy at the dearth of black players in the team.

White claims to be committed to the post-apartheid "transformation" agenda but he has infuriated SA Rugby by selecting just six "players of colour" in the 30-man Tri-Nations squad, which opens with a home fixture against Australia on Saturday.

This comes in the wake of a thinly-veiled warning from SA Rugby that the coach will be without a job in the autumn if he doesn't change the Springbok's "white face".

Isolated by the union, White has turned to no less a figure than the President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki for help. The coach has been granted an audience with Mbeki in Cape Town tomorrow at which he is due to plea for an end to political interference in the Springboks.

SA Rugby has responded to White's strategy with predictable rage. It warned of disciplinary action against the coach if he took his grievances to "an external audience".

Ironically, the Springboks have been performing well on the pitch, recently dismissing touring sides from England and Samoa with ease. South Africa also secured its first victory in the Super 14s tournament last month, breaking New Zealand's recent stranglehold over the club competition.

Relations between White and his employers hit a new low four weeks ago when SA Rugby head Oregan Hoskins ordered the coach to include flanker Luke Watson in a Bok training camp.

Despite being named South Africa's Super 14s player of the year in 2006, the Western Province skipper had been overlooked by White in all previous selections. Unwisely perhaps Watson went public on the issue, saying in a magazine interview last year that "Jake has lost the integrity, honour and pride that the Boks should be about".

White revealed this week that he had been told by SA Rugby to select Watson or face dismissal when his contract ran out in September. "The message was that if I wanted a future in South African rugby beyond the World Cup I had to include Watson in the Bok team and pick him for the World Cup." Before he could decide on the matter, he said, "the decision was taken out of my hands and I was forced by the Saru leadership to include the player anyway".

Watson's non-selection had been particularly symbolic because of the role his father played in opposing segregated rugby during the apartheid era.

"Cheeky" Watson refused to play for the Springboks when it was a white-only team, opting instead to help develop club rugby among the black population.

Watson Snr also went on to develop strong ties with the African National Congress, now the party of government in South Africa, and is close to Springbok manager Zola Yeye and other "reforming" figures.

One senior politician said the family's honourable role in the struggle meant Luke Watson was effectively a "black player" who should be included in the Springbok team ahead of a white player of equal talent.

The view was shared by Hoskins who has gone on the offensive against his critics, notably attacking former Irish international John Robbie - now a Johannesburg media commentator - in a recent radio interview.

Watson finally got his first Springbok cap last weekend but failed to shine in the 35-8 victory over Samoa. To White, the performance vindicated his theory that the player was too small for international rugby. But union bosses are unperturbed and have since signalled their intent to mould a new Springbok team around Watson that features at least 10 black players in the starting XV by 2008.

South Africa's under-21 coach Peter de Villiers was reportedly being approached by the union to take over from White. He would become the country's first black Springbok coach, and this week he said his emphasis would be on transforming the team even if it meant "pain" in terms of results. "Other coaches pick black players in their squad, but don't play them. That's where I am different. I pick the players and trust them by playing them," he said.

In purely sporting terms, the timing couldn't be worse for a change in management. Or so, at least, White is due to argue at his meeting with Mr Mbeki tomorrow.

The Springboks have a habit of self-imploding on the eve of major tournaments, most famously in 2003 when players were stripped naked and humiliated as part of a "team-building" exercise at a pre-World Cup boot-camp.

"I had the ear of the president recently and we agreed to have a nice chat about things," said White. "There are a lot of things that I can talk to him about that I am unhappy about, and the same applies to the president."

An intervention from Mbeki may well give the coach a stay of execution but few believe White will be still in his job next year.