Tony Ehrenreich vs the Springboks

Andrew Donaldson on the COSATU WCape leader's endless moaning about our 'all white' rugby team

SOUTH African rugby, you may have noticed, is going through a rough patch. A bit of churned up turf, you could say, just five metres from their own goal line. The Boks appear to have forgotten how to play, which is a little worrying as the World Cup is just weeks away and we’re running out of time if we want to regain that old mojo.

However, what has piqued our interest, here at the Mahogany Ridge, is the rubbish taking place off the field. 

There was nothing particularly new or startling in Cosatu’s whinge, for example, at the lack of transformation in the national team following their first ever defeat to Argentina last weekend. 

When you think about it, there hasn’t really been a moment this winter – or even last – when the federation’s provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich hasn’t been moaning about the “all white” Springboks. He’s been such a boring stuck record in this regard that, writing this paragraph, I’m amazed that I’m still awake.

What is unusual – and greatly dismaying, I may add – is that the Springbok coach, Heyneke Meyer, has actually dignified Ehrenreich’s mewling call for his dismissal with a response. 

The poor man, but it did appear as if Meyer had been served a meaty helping of his own game strategy. You know, lull your opponents into a false sense of security with bad form and shoddy behaviour – then score a try. For here he was, doing that all too familiar and terribly shameful white South African “lose-lose” mambo: Please, Sir, but I’m not a racist, honest. 

“I don’t look at colour,” Meyer said. “I look at the best players. I’m totally committed to transformation and I have a great relationship with my players.”

That may well be the case, and I have no reason to doubt that, but it’s an unedifying business all the same, and no good ever comes from having to demean yourself in such a manner. 

For a guy who probably spent his schoolboy afternoons sitting on the sidelines with a note from matron and a plate of orange slices, Ehrenreich does seem to know an awful lot about rugby. 

In his most recent statement on the matter, in which he threatens an “international campaign” to expose rugby’s refusal to transform “in line with the national ambition”, he waffles on about how Meyer played white players “out of their positions” in the Argentina debacle, “as he put them into specialist positions, where clearly there were black players available”. 

Add to this the charges of Meyer’s arrogance, ignoring the will of the majority, treating the game as his “private fiefdom” and the fielding of “personal preferences”, and you can clearly see that Ehrenreich is something of an expert. (His personal preference for a coach, it would seem, would be to recall Peter de Villiers.)

Sadly, Ehrenreich is correct that rugby is still too white a sport. But it’s a problem that starts with resource-strapped schools in our poorer communities – and not Meyer or even the SA Rugby Union. The connection between the paucity of quality black players and the lack of sports facilities at township schools is fairly obvious, and if you want to apportion blame, start with the education authorities.

Happily, Meyer has a champion – for the time being, at least – in Fikile Mbalula, the Sports Minister. He’s taken to Twitter to express his support for the team and warned that change wasn’t coming soon: “Full transformation in rugby is not going to emerge overnight because we are going to the World Cup.” (He really can stuff more non-sequiturs in a 140 character-burst than most on social media.)

Bok management had rather cleverly allowed Mbalula a bit of behind-the-scenes time with players to win him over. There’s nothing like the pungency of wintergreen and the other heady aromas of the dressing room to convince a chap that he’s part of the team as well. And, like those mascot children who get to run on the field with their heroes, Mbaks gets to perform a bit in the limelight in his oversized Bok blazer and flapping scarf before the anthems start. It keeps him happy.

Here at the Ridge, though, we feel it would be a sad business if Meyer were to go. He brings a great deal to the game – or rather the game’s televised broadcast. On those occasions that the Boks do threaten to score, it’s a treat to see him bouncing excitedly about having what looks like a vein-bursting grand seizure and going puce in the face. All that’s missing is the straitjacket. 

Obviously we need more of that sort of thing from him. Quite a bit more.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.