Steve Hansen's ill-informed comments will unite South Africa against the All Blacks

Alex Broun 18:11 26/09/2018
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Aphiwe Dyantyi - has been one of the Bok's best this season

There is no question about All Blacks coach Steve Hansen‘s ability as a rugby coach but his diplomacy and tact are once again being called into question.

His comments, made in 2017, in Peter Bills’ new book about the All Blacks, The Jersey: The Secrets behind the World’s Most Successful Team, have caused a stir in South Africa and around the world – and rightly so.

Why Hansen felt the need to comment about the “decline” of South African rugby in a book about his own team’s success is a good first question.

Hansen is no idiot and indeed for the most part is a shrewd media operator.

But Bills, an experienced rugby journalist, who is very good at getting close to and under the skin of his subjects, has clearly lulled him into a comfortable state where he felt he could talk about such complex issues.

Whatever Hansen intended, his remarks come off as ill-thought, naïve and offensive – and show his complete ignorance about transformation in the rainbow nation.

Saying that rugby “wasn’t a black man’s sport” at the time of Nelson Mandela’s presidency is very offensive to anybody who has ever been connected with South African Rugby.

The proud history of black rugby in South Africa can be traced right back to 1896 when the South African Coloured Rugby Football Board (SACRFB) was formed, only seven years after the founding of the white South African Rugby Board (SARB).

Black South Africans have always been just as passionate about rugby as their white countrymen, especially in the Eastern Cape, even through the dark days of segregation when the Springbok emblem became one of the most hated symbols of apartheid.

Interestingly, in a show of defiance, many non-white South Africans during those days would choose to support the All Blacks against their own nation.

Thanks to Hansen’s remarks that won’t be the case when the two nations meet in Pretoria on October 6.

Hansen went on to clumsily allude to Nelson Mandela and completely misrepresent the former South African president’s deep connection with the Springbok team.

Mandela realised the Springbok team was predominantly white, and would remain so for some time, but he chose to support them in the lead-up to the 1995 Rugby World Cup, played in South Africa, because he rightly felt it was an effective way to ease tensions at a very volatile time in the nation’s history.

Hansen’s other point about the Springboks being “the only team in sport … that doesn’t pick its best team”, is debatable.

Yes, there have been a number of players in the last decade who may have been fast-tracked into the Springbok team to create a more representative racial mix in the side. And indeed it is required for next year’s Rugby World Cup that the Springboks pick up to 50 per cent non-white players.

But does that mean the team that goes to Japan 2019 won’t be as good if Rassie Erasmus had the option to choose more white than non-white players?

Some of the Springboks’ best and most exciting debutants this year have been non-white players – Lukhanyo Am, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi.

Would these players have got the chance if Erasmus had not been focused on bringing through non-white talent for 2019?

Also the inspired choice of Siya Kolisi as new Springbok captain, which has been a great success both for the team and player: would Erasmus had made that appointment without a nudge?

Others also suggest that the preference currently being given at Springbok level is simply evening up of a bias against non-white players in the junior ranks, where many black and coloured players do not get a chance due to selectors’ negativity and economic and social circumstances.

Either way it is a complex issue and not one you discuss after dinner in a cosy fireside chat about what makes the All Blacks so great.

And then to drag former Bok coach Heyneke Meyer, happily in his new position as Stade Francais coach, into the furore is more than oversight. Hansen stated Meyer was supposedly forced to pick non-white players and his resistance contributed to him being sacked.

The SARFU SACOS Legends who said Hansen’s comments “reeked of complete ignorance” were 100 per cent right.

The All Blacks bosses words are indeed “simplistic pronouncements… indicative of a hackneyed view which shows complete disdain for the hurt and pain experienced by those from the former non-racial SARU SACOS rugby stable”.

It will be interesting to see how Hansen faces the accusation when he arrives in South Africa on Monday.

No doubt veteran All Blacks media man Joe Locke will be doing his utmost to shut down the line of questioning before it starts.

But Hansen must face the music on this one. He’s called it how he sees it – and now he needs to face the ramifications of that.

If Hansen was concerned about the state of South African rugby – his comments have given the game a massive boost in the nation and it is his team who will feel the brunt of it – as well as the Wallabies this weekend in Port Elizabeth.

Hansen’s players won’t be thanking their coach for putting them in the middle of the controversy.

The All Blacks will face a unified Springbok team breathing fire at Loftus Versfeld on October 6 and even more determined and desperate than they were in Wellington to record a second-straight victory over the mighty world champs.

Before I would have said that the Boks doing the double was a long shot – but after Hansen’s comments South Africa will start as favourites, no grand pronouncement from him required.

And those South Africans who previously may have tacitly supported the All Blacks will be shifting their support to the team in green.

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