Cake politics

The Rugby Championship, the World Cup, and Springbok politics in South Africa.

Screenshot from the "Stronger Together" TV advert.

Before the All Blacks-Springbok match in Wellington on Saturday, July 27th, a Checkers supermarket in Cape Town displayed two cakes. One was frosted in black with the familiar silver fern of New Zealand Rugby’s All Blacks. The other had the green and gold with the contested Springbok logo, but instead of reading “Springboks” the baker wrote “Quota Squad,” the clear implication being that the Springbok selection process was politicized and black players were being selected because of a (nonexistent) political quota.

The accusation itself, so often heard by white rugby fans (and held by some in the media), so infrequently legitimate, was even more absurd in the context of the 2019 Springboks.

The cake predictably caused a furor. But like most furors in our Twitter-fueled world it largely faded. Checkers apologized. An unnamed baker’s head may or may not have rolled. The Boks and All Blacks played to a 16-16 draw. Two weeks later, South Africa smashed Argentina in Salta to win The Rugby Championship, the first time the Boks had won the vaunted southern hemisphere championship in ten years, since then-coach Peter De Villiers’ Boks had won the Tri-Nations in 2009.

With all due respect to the Six Nations, The Rugby Championship is by far the most significant, highest quality international tournament every year when a World Cup is not played. Want numbers using World Cup experiences as a rough proxy for relative hemispheric domination? There have been eight IRB World Cups. Southern Hemisphere nations have won seven. In the eight World Cups there have been six-teen finalists. Ten have come from the Southern hemisphere powers, six from Six Nations, despite there being fifty percent more of the European teams. There have been thirty-two semi-finalists. Nineteen have come from SANZAAR, thirteen from Six Nations countries. There has never been a Cup when fewer than two southern hemisphere nations qualified for the semis. There has never been a year when more than two European countries qualified for the semis. In 1999 all three of the then-SANZAR nations qualified for the semis; in 2011 all four Rugby Championship teams qualified for the four semifinal spots. Three of the four Rugby Championship nations (and all three Tri-Nations participants) have won at least two World Cups. None of this takes into account head-to-head matches between the Southern Hemisphere teams and their Northern Hemisphere counterparts, where the Southern Hemisphere has been even more dominant. (South Africa, for example, is 96-36-3 against the Six Nations teams since their return from isolation and has a comfortably-to-overwhelmingly winning record against all six.) To say the Southern Hemisphere tournament is better with fewer teams is not merely uncontroversial. It’s silly to even consider the question.

But in World Cup years, The Rugby Championship, because of when it is played, is a shadow of its usual self. Where Six Nations, played in the first months of the year far from the World Cup, maintains its structure, status, and quality during World Cup years, the Championship is a truncated shadow of its usual self. The teams are the same and the quality is unquestionable. But by July and August, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia are very much interested in adding to their tally of world championships and Argentina is itching to join their ranks.

So it is in 2019. The Rugby Championship has already wrapped, because this year, as is typical for World Cup seasons, the traditional home-and-home setup where each team plays six games was scrapped for one-off matches where luck of the draw determined location and each team played the other only once. This year the Springboks and Australia’s Wallabies opened the competition in Johannesburg on July 20th, with the South Africans earning a bonus point win at Ellis Park where later that night (South Africa time) New Zealand defeated the Pumas in Argentina. The next week South Africa traveled to play their blood rivals, New Zealand, in Wellington where the titans fought to that draw that sure felt like a Bok win, while Argentina visited Brisbane and lost to their hosts in a close contest. The Championship closed out on August 10 with the Boks crushing Argentina to win the Championship after Australia had racked up a record number of points in defeating New Zealand. The All Blacks had gone down to 14 men after a red card in a Bledisloe Cup clash at Eden Park in Auckland earlier in the day and from that point on Australia cruised to a victory.

Let there be no mistake—all four countries wanted to win the Championship. But 2019 will not be assessed, especially for New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, based on who won The Rugby Championship. And since no team has ever won the Championship/Tri-Nations and also the World Cup, it is even more clear that the focus for the Championship was on how events will play out in Japan, not how they have played out across the SANZAAR landscape in July and August. That said, when the final whistle blew, the South Africans were dancing and singing on the trophy presentation stage. Winning that title this year did not mean everything. It does not follow that it meant nothing.

Thus the peculiarities of the 2019 Rugby Championship… and also the latest in an endless line of allegedly politics-fueled selection decisions by Bok management.

So, back to cake-gate and quota talk.

Initially Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus effectively created two Springbok squads. One group faced off against Australia. It would be unfair (and frankly ridiculous) to call that squad a B-side, as some tried to do in the week leading up to the contest. After all, any Springbok side with Beast Mtawarira, Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Elton Jantjies, Jesse Kriel, Francois Louw, and Peter-Steph du Toit in it is no B-side, and some of the younger and less experienced players seemed ready to make a leap forward. And while the Boks blooded three new caps in starters Herschel Jantjies and Rynhardt Elstadt, with Lizo Gqoboka earning his first cap off the bench, well, there have been plenty of great Springbok A-teams with debutantes in the lineup. And Herschel Jantjies has proven to be nothing shy of a revelation in his first two matches in green and gold and certainly has sealed his trip to Japan. It is also worth noting that this so-called B-side had eight black players in the starting lineup, making accusations of it being a “B-side” all the more problematic, and, in light of the comfortable win over Australia, mildly ridiculous.

The other squad settled down in New Zealand to acclimate beforehand for the clash against the All Blacks. After the Australia game a further group of players and staff flew out almost immediately (as soon as Rassie Erasmus could get away from the press conference) with yet another contingent that departed on Sunday. It was clear that both teams still definitely wanted to win even if the match was not their long-range priority for 2019. The two teams will meet up in the second match of the World Cup in Japan where the two giants of world rugby are in the same pool and neither wanted to yield psychological advantage to the other. South Africa had perhaps more to prove as the country‘s national team continues to recover from the depths they hit in 2016-2017. Thus, the draw in Wellington was a positive result for the Springboks but served merely as an appetizer to the September 21st meeting in Yokohama, with neither team gaining any sort of advantage, concrete or intangible, at the Cake Tin last week.

By the third match in Argentina most of the talk of “A” and “B” squads had faded. It was clear that Erasmus and his staff were in search of combinations, were getting a penultimate look at his options (The Springboks play another match against Argentina at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria this Saturday) and are trying to figure out which 31 players to take to Japan. The health of the Captain, flanker Siya Kolisi, and wing Aphiwe Dyantyi are in question, but otherwise the decisions are to be made on talent.

And this is the key factor.

For going on thirty years now white accusers have levied the charge of “quotas,” of “politics” every time black players are chosen, whenever a black coach is hired (or considered). Yet these accusers are often far more politically driven than those they accuse. Springbok rugby—rugby in the country generally—has been accused of falling short on “transformation,” the effort to make the sport representative of the population. And rightfully so—the Springboks and the green-and-gold, a long contested symbol long embodied white supremacy and Afrikaner nationalism.  There is a long way to go, and in any case the idea that rugby transformation will have a powerful effect on the country is a hoary overstatement borne of naiveté and romanticization of a sport that means little for vast swathes of the South African population no matter the cultural presence of the Springboks in the elite media and popular culture where whites (still the group that most passionately supports Springbok rugby in particular) still hold disproportionate sway.

Yet the reality is that the Springboks, because of the pressure brought to bear on them from the government and elsewhere, have actually done a better job of bringing in black players than maybe they have been given credit for. The main reason for this is less virtue than it is the simple reality that the Springboks want and need to win. To ignore a vast swathe of the population that can help them do so would be suicide. There have always been black rugby players in South Africa, despite a self-serving myth that whites created that “blacks are not rugby people.” So-called coloured and African rugby federations survived and sometimes thrived during apartheid. Facing similar pressures to the national setup the elite rugby playing schools are recruiting black students from a young age and in some circles with an eye toward cultivating rugby talent, though these schools remain stubbornly and disproportionately white.

This year’s Springboks will be multiracial unlike no other Springbok World Cup side. They will do a far better job, for example, than the recently heralded South African Proteas Netball team that made the semi-finals of the World Cup and rarely had more than two black players on the court at any one time.

And the key to the Springboks selection conundrum, and to understanding the absurdity of the “Quota Team” accusation? I defy any accusers to name one of the potential candidates for this year’s World Cup squad for whom a clear case for their inclusion cannot be made. I defy them to do so, because it cannot be done. That is not to say that every black candidate is a slam-dunk choice. It is not to say that every black player shined at every moment in the Championship, which would be to put a burden on black Springboks that white players do not confront. It is simply to say that this is a deep, talented group of players, not a single one of whom has been or will be chosen for “political” reasons. (This discussion also serves to remind us of is just how much talent there is in South African rugby across the color lines. There are certainly issues with an inability to retain players for Super Rugby and Currie Cup in light of the salaries on offer across multiple European leagues and in Japan. But one can also watch the ongoing (and also truncated) Currie Cup and in a fair number of the matches see players with Springbok caps, many of whom have not worn the green and gold for the last time.)

The Springboks have won The Rugby Championship. But mostly that victory serves as a declaration of intent. They—like New Zealand and Australia and at least a handful of the Northern Hemisphere teams—intend to go to Japan to win. And after the last month one can easily imagine Siya Kolisi, the first black Springbok captain who hails from the black rugby heartland of the Eastern Cape, holding the Webb Ellis trophy aloft. That, at least, is something.

Further Reading

After the World Cup is gone

The book, “Africa’s World Cup,” is a valuable source for thinking more deeply about the meanings and legacies of the 2010 edition of the competition hosted in South Africa.

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