THE appointment of Allister Coetzee and Mzwandile Stick to the Springbok team represents an opportunity to align rugby with contemporary SA. Let’s not blow it.
Both bring considerable social and political capital. Each has proved himself to be a game-changer. At Western Province, Coetzee showed that you could field a team with eight or nine players of colour and still be the best in the country. In his eight years at the helm, he led the Stormers to the top of the South African conference three times, and won the Currie Cup twice.
Almost half the players in Stick’s Under-19 team, which went on to win the Under-19 Currie Cup, were black, most of them from the Eastern Cape.
Neither came from a culture that privileged whiteness, and they gave the lie to the prevailing wisdom in parts of South African rugby: that black players weaken a team and are the tax you pay to appease the politicians.
Stick grew up in a Port Elizabeth township with a mother who frequently struggled to put food on the table. He attended the local township school, and yet still managed to make it to the top, captaining the Sevens team that won the World Series title in 2008-09.
Coetzee grew up in Grahamstown. He has a vivid memory of watching white boys at nearby Kingswood College play rugby with the best equipment, while he had to walk to the much poorer coloured school down the road. His father died while he was very young and his mother struggled to provide for him and his three siblings.
ALTHOUGH a talented and ambitious scrumhalf, his race precluded him from playing for SA.
Stick and Coetzee reflect the tough life experiences common to the majority of South Africans, and their elevation to the upper echelons of the game must make it seem much more accessible than it has in the past.
Neither has a chip on the shoulder, or sees himself as a victim. Their victory against the odds they were born into shows character and emotional resilience.
These qualities came in handy when dealing with their respective managements.
Stick answered to the deeply dysfunctional Eastern Province Rugby Union, and Coetzee endured eight years of frequently erratic and interfering management under the Western Province Rugby Union.
But the pressures on the Springbok coach, in particular, are way more intense and, without proper support, Coetzee will struggle.
The South African Rugby Union (Saru) has done well to appoint Coetzee and Stick. But it now needs to prove that this is not window-dressing. It needs to give their new Bok coach all the resources he needs to succeed. Otherwise, his appointment will be seen to be a cynical one, setting him up to fail.
Similar privileges to those accorded to Heyneke Meyer would be a good start.
Saru forked out substantial sums at the start of Meyer’s tenure to enable him to bring his own management team from the Bulls. He was then allowed to add more coaches, such as breakdown specialist, Richie Gray.
As yet, Coetzee does not appear to be similarly indulged. There is no evidence that he has picked any members of the team announced on Tuesday.
Given that he has already been disadvantaged by being appointed three-and-a-half months late, Saru needs to do all it can to help him, otherwise it risks being accused of not giving the same opportunities to a black coach as it gave to a white, Afrikaans one.
The corporate world should come to the party: any new sponsorship deals should be predicated on better governance, which would include equal opportunity for all employees, regardless of colour.
There has been talk of the Super Rugby coaches forming a Bok “selection committee”. This must be rapidly scotched. Meyer fought for — and won — the right to have ultimate say over selection. Rightly, he argued that if he were to be held responsible for winning every game, he needed to be able to pick his team.
The Super Rugby franchises need to play their part and put petty provincial rivalry aside.
The initiative introduced in Meyer’s term of systematically resting key Springbok players during Super Rugby must be continued.
Super Rugby coaches should also give more players of colour some proper game time to increase the pool available to Coetzee.
Fans need to give the new coaching team the benefit of the doubt. A bit of generosity of spirit would go a long way. Fans, particularly those who flock to Ellis Park for the iconic All Black derbies, should learn the first verses of the national anthem so that we are no longer subjected to the dramatic amplification of sound when English and Afrikaans verses are sung. It’s not that difficult. Make an effort.
DESPITE the autumn chill in the air, there is a sense of spring-time, of new beginnings, about rugby. Unlike Meyer, who looked to seasoned troops right from the start of his campaign, Coetzee will have to start afresh. Most of last year’s team have either retired, are approaching retirement, or are playing abroad.
This should not be a problem for Coetzee, who has proved that he is happy to trust youngsters.
Stick is something of a specialist in turning rookies into stars, given his track record with the Eastern Province Under-19s.
Transformation, which is viewed as a burden by Meyer, will come naturally to Coetzee.
At the Stormers, Coetzee displayed the ability effortlessly to forge racially and culturally diverse teams. Boys of colour were given every opportunity, but so were white players. Schalk Burger, Jean de Villiers, Eben Etzebeth flourished in his time, as did Siya Kolisi, Scarra Ntubeni, and Nizaam Carr.
There is a good chance that, with Coetzee and Stick at the helm, the sense of marginalisation that has plagued black Springboks will be a thing of the past. Under Meyer, Afrikaans was used for team talks, which was alienating for black players. The new Bok set-up hopefully will better reflect our diversity of languages.
Stick’s Under-19s also brought a vibrant culture from their Eastern Cape schools — with traditional isiXhosa war and struggle songs borrowed from their elders.
Some infusion of this into Bok culture could only enrich it.
• McGregor is author of Springbok Factory: What it Takes to be a Bok, and a visiting researcher at the Institute for the Humanities in Africa at the University of Cape Town.
*This column first appeared in Business Day