The rot in our rugby

Mike Berger says the Springboks have become a national embarrassment

I really didn't want to write about rugby. Surely there many more "important" things: like who is behind the Hawks (as though we don't know)? Or the enigma that is Cyril? Or whether Musi's remarkable achievements will be sustained?

But no, it's going to be rugby. I need to speak of the pain it has put me through... all of us through. Of course the kiddies (those below 40) know little of this pain. They have grown up in a world in which Springbok rugby oscillates between a joke and a prayer. On rare occasions the prayer is answered and we produce genuinely good, perhaps great, teams. Teams with guts, passion, confidence and real pride in a great tradition. Men amongst men who get the job done; the Navy Seals of the rugby world. But even these rare interludes are no more.

We are frankly an embarrassment, especially to ourselves. I grew up in a world in which South African rugby were the Kings, and the All Blacks courageous and respected pretenders to the throne. Or that's the way it seemed to a kid with no pretentions of his own to rugby greatness. My world was peopled with names carrying a golden halo of heroism: Hennie Muller, Okey Geffen, Tjol Lategan...on into the mists of time.

Even in those amateur days we were known for our big, tough forwards. Bigger and tougher than almost all we faced, for our uncompromising defence and our famous kicking fullbacks. But those days are past and, as I have said, we have become an embarrassment. Because of our illustrious history some still speak of us in tones of respect, but that's just decency and politeness.

We have sadly morphed into the aging, brain-befuddled heavyweight of the rugby world against whom the tough young kids on the block can demonstrate that they have arrived in the upper echelons of the professional game. The reasons are simple:

South Africa no longer has any sort of monopoly on size, strength and toughness. With the advent of the South Sea Islanders and Fijians big time into the professional ranks, that genetic bonsella lies with the All Blacks and, to a lesser extent, with Australia and any other rich country which can pay for their talents. With professionalism, high-tech video, smart coaches and big money we no longer have any monopoly on skill and strategy. In fact, we lag behind the current contenders.

But, above all, we no longer have any cultural and traditional advantage. Rugby was the Afrikaner's badge of manhood and courage and he was respected, if not liked, for it. That ethnic backbone disappeared along with Apartheid, but we have nothing worthwhile in its place. Indeed we have only confusion, dishonesty, self-deception...and boundless strategic and operational stupidity on the field.

So let's get down to brass tacks. The bad-good ole, ethnic days are never coming back. The boring old game of kick, dominate, subdue and penetrate are also over for South Africa and, unless a new pool of supermen is found, they too are never to return. We are firmly condemned to an accelerating losing trend unless we devise a long-term vision and strategy for the revival of our national game.

None of the essential elements of such a winning vision and strategy is rocket science. The smart, knowledgeable folk who have spent their lives in rugby know it (and much more) but it needs to be said up front so that they find the courage and support to take it further. So for the record here are my thoughts:

Firstly, we must get used to losing, even embrace it, while we get our house in order. Forget about shortcuts. For the next five years we must judge our national rugby side on one thing only: are they playing the kind of rugby that will make them winners when they get it right and develop full confidence in their own abilities and traditions. Do we enjoy watching them?

To get the right vision and strategy we must look at the current top dogs, mostly the All Blacks, and borrow, steal, learn and adapt from them. To hanker back to when we were the "bullies" of the rugby world is absolutely self-defeating and ludicrous. We must become smart, adept, fast, mean, adaptable. and determined to be the top dogs again.

We must get the basics of 15 man rugby right. Every player in the side must be able to run, pass, kick, tackle and catch. They must all become much smarter in order to play the new 15 man game within a strategic framework, and to read the game, the ref, their opponents and the situation.

We must get the details right. That's worth saying again! Games are won and lost on details in the top ranks. Watching our top players systematically kicking possession away like a frenzied gambler, passing behind support players, dropping the ball instead of grounding it, running support in front of the player with the ball thus forcing a forward pass, ambling meters behind a newly developing ruck, rucking ineffectually, pretending to tackle, repeatedly dying with the ball instead of using it or, with the game at a delicately poised stage, throw out sloppy and careless passes - is like chewing on ground glass. You can't expect supporters to endure this, and more, forever.

It is painful to say all this. Top rugby demands remarkable physical and mental qualities and I'm sure that most of the players are both highly talented and committed. Some are greats or potential greats. Yet, this litany of errors is what we see again and again of the field. If we are to regain pride in our side, we need to see the entire team from players to coaches, support staff and administrators stand up and be counted.

The coaches must do their complicated jobs properly. Players and supporters have every right to demand this. Coaching a top professional team in this age of professionalism must be one of the most complex tasks in the world. It simply cannot be done by one man and we must find the money and the team to do it properly. Such is the level of skill in the top ranks, coaching staff have to be intensely creative to find solutions for recurring situations in the game; and continually modify and adapt them as opponents catch on..

To go through the various components in the management and coaching of a winning rugby side requires a very large manual, not a paragraph. But it is worth noting that players of the top rank are expected to make considerable personal sacrifices for the substantial rewards they receive. They deserve honest guidance and care from the coaching team responsible for their lives throughout the vital stages of young adulthood. This must go to team and player character development which is probably the single biggest factor in success.

Now for the elephant in the room. Top teams and all connected thereto must be selected purely on merit. There can be absolutely no compromise with this principle. There can be no room for racial or any other quotas at any level, but especially at the top. This principle is completely compatible with transformation; smart, effective transformation, not the failing, divisive and destructive travesty of "transformation" foisted on us by politicians jockeying for position.

Before I'm labelled or ridiculed, and contrary to the dominant media portrait, some results from a national opinion survey carried out by the Institute of Race Relations earlier this year support a more hopeful perspective. To summarise: 77% of all respondents (and 74% of black South Africans) supported merit-based selections and 62% agreed with the comment "All this talk of racism and colonialism is an attempt by politicians to find excuses for their own failures".

The basic principles of rehabilitation are easy: look for "talent" (black, white brown or any colour of the rainbow) at the earliest stages. Then select, develop, train, sieve and empower through the structures and stages. Help the best for purpose into appropriate rugby environments. Empower the others to find other avenues for self-expression and success, maybe even related to rugby in various other capacities. Get the top teams and top coaches involved in the transformation process.

This is a serious, complex and arduous process. Showy symbolism, while useful for public support and brand building, will be no substitute for intelligent, hard grafting in the trenches.

It will be argued that much of what I have proposed is already on the books and being implemented. Not true. At best it's operationalised piecemeal with no coherent, long-term vision and strategy behind it.. The power of money and expertise harnessed to a vigorous, principled vision has been demonstrated by Great Britain in the Rio and London Olympics. We may not have the same amount of money but the principles are clear. All we need is the courage of our convictions.

Rugby (like all sport) can be a force for the good in South Africa. It can bind different communities. It can enhance national pride and self-esteem. It can cultivate the personal and cultural qualities that make for success in all branches of life. As it stands at present, it is a symbol of our decay and failure. We cannot allow it to continue.

I for one will not watch rugby again until I see that this basic vision and strategy, which is followed by all winning nations, is part of the game in this country. If adopted it may be the catalyst to transform great but failing South African institution into a success story. We need such turnabouts to become the success story that lies within us.

Mike Berger