Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Playing the numbers game... from the wrong end

For those who don't know, South Africa recently won the rugby world cup. So, while other coaches were being axed left and right, South Africa's coach was welcomed home like a conquering hero with a secure future.


He was advised that he would have to reapply for his job on his return home. And the conditions under which he would be re-awarded it included the immediate introduction of a quota system which would see 10 black players to 5 white in the team (a rugby team has 15 players: 8 forwards: two props, a hooker, two locks, two flanks, an eighth man, and seven backs: a scrum half, a fly half, two centres, two wings and a full back).

This a ticklish issue in any country, but especially in South Africa, which is still in its early post-apartheid days. I can understand why the sports minister, wants to see more black players running out onto the rugby field. After all, the South African population is about 90% black. The problem is that, like so many unsatisfactory situations, this one is being tackled from the wrong end.

Traditionally, rugby has primarily been the sport of choice among the white people of the country, while soccer has primarily been the sport of choice among the black people (see this picture of the national side). The way in which this came about has not been entirely without blemish, but this doesn't change the bald statistics of the situation.

Of course, there have always been black South Africans who have played rugby, just as there have always been white ones who have played soccer . But, in the past, these represented a very slight blurring of a rather definite line. Since the downfall of apartheid and the desegregation of sports clubs, the number of black people playing rugby has increased. With improved facilities and coaching at their disposal, many are playing a vastly improved game, with the result that the number of them able to play at international level has also increased.

But it is a slow process. People tend to stick with what they're used to. Just because a person can now play rugby, doesn't mean that they suddenly will develop a desire to do so. The situation is not a million miles from the English tendency to see rugby as the game of privileged, private school educated men, whereas soccer (called football, in the UK) is seen as Everyman's game.

Selecting a team on the basis of their skin colour and sending them out against some of the biggest, toughest, most competitive men on the planet would be irresponsible. They are likely to get hurt. They are also almost certain to get severely beaten which, for a chip-on-the-shoulder-competitive nation, will stick in the craw like a fishbone.

The way to get to a place where 90% of the South African national rugby team is black is to get in at the grassroots level:

  • market the game into the schools
  • provide rugby fields at schools which currently do not have them
  • establish junior rugby clubs in areas where there are none
  • run coaching clinics in areas where rugby is still largely unknown
  • provide bursaries to rugby academies
  • seek out and develop talent among the youngsters
  • etc. etc.
Then at the world cup competition in 2015 (or maybe 2019) the South African team that runs out onto the pitch will boast more black players than white. They will have been selected on merit and they will be a national side the whole country can be proud of, a side that stands a chance of lifting the trophy yet again. Worthy of the golden springbok on a green field, worthy of the passionate support and loyalty that South African fans give their team. Worthy of the throaty cry "Amabokkebokke!!!!!!"

We tend to see the same approach being taken far too often in education, in corporate training. That's the wrong end. We need to lay the foundation while they're still young.

Or so I think, anyway.


Harold Jarche said...

You're taking a systems approach, Karyn, which of course is the most sensible one, and it will be promptly ignored by all those bozos with more power than brains.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for boost, Harold. To me it all seems penny wise and pound foolish. And, when you're playing with taxpayers' money, how can there be an excuse for that?