He refused to room with a black teammate. For some, the era of apartheid never ended

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In South African history, few images have told a story better than that of President Nelson Mandela celebrating South Africa's 1995 Rugby World Cup final victory with the victorious captain Francois Pienaar.

Minutes after the Springboks had beaten the All Blacks, a beaming Mandela, clad in a Springbok jersey, held one handle of the William Webb Ellis trophy and the other was gripped by the muscular, blond-haired Pienaar, looking the epitome of the ultimate Afrikaner warrior.

It was a masterstroke from Mr Mandela, the ultimate gesture of reconciliation towards the white people who had imprisoned him for 27 years because he dared to fight the evils of apartheid.

"The Rainbow Nation has been born," Mr Mandela proclaimed to the rapturous applause of a 75 000 crowd that mostly comprised white Afrikaans males. "This is the dawn of a new era for all South Africans," he added.

How was wrong. That much celebrated dawn vanished almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth. A series of racist rugby incidents has slowly but surely whittled away at that goodwill, and yesterday the last vestiges of conciliation disappeared when the most blatantly racist incident so far rocked the pre-Rugby World Cup Springbok training camp in Pretoria.

Geo Cronje, a towering giant of a man, refused to share a room with a black player, Quinton Davids. Cronje told teammates he did not wish to share ablution facilities with him. Cronje was unceremoniously ejected from the Springbok camp and he will take on instant pariah status in South Africa and international rugby.

The 6ft 6in 19st Cronje has an anachronistic appearance; he sports a ragged, bushy red beard that gives him the look of a Boer War general. Sadly, his views on race seem to be from a similar time period.

And as he trooped out of the camp, South African rugby authorities began a vain attempt to put out the fire. They have no chance. Red Adair would have no chance damping this blaze. The South African people have had enough. In the apartheid days, Afrikaners unashamedly used rugby as the ultimate symbol of their superiority. And there has been mounting evidence since 1995 that attitudes have not changed.

Less than a year after the World Cup victory, controversy raged when Springbok coach Andre Markgraaff selected one Henry Tromp. He and his father had recently been convicted of manslaughter. Their crime? They beat a farmworker to death. Many felt that Markgraaff had been insensitive in his selection of Tromp.

Later that year, the Boks played a match against Australia in Bloemfontein. To the horror of many, thousands of fans triumphantly waved the apartheid-era national flag, an obvious symbol of oppression. During the ensuing race row, captain Pienaar poured petrol on the flames when he publicly stated fans were welcome to wave whatever flags they wished.

A year later, Markgraaff's troubled reign ended in dramatic, soap-opera style. A discontented player, armed with a hidden tape recorder, asked for an audience with the coach and enticed him to make racist comments. The player, Andre Bester, leaked the tape to the media. National television audiences heard Markgraaff calling a senior rugby administrator, Mluleki George, a kaffir, the ultimate insult to black South Africans, and he said SA rugby's problems were "the fault of the kaffirs". Markgraaff resigned in tears.

The growing well of bitterness towards "white rugby" overflowed in 1998 when the Minister of Sport, Steve Tswete, launched a commission of inquiry into allegations of racism and financial mismanagement in rugby. The then president of the South African Rugby Football Union, Louis Luyt, ensured Mr Mandela was brought to court to give evidence. Mr Mandela was in the witness box for five hours, a far cry from the emotional time on the winners podium at Ellis Park.

As a consequence of the inquiry, formal race quotas were introduced at all levels of South Africa rugby. By law, each team has to field a certain number of black players. In 1999, fears among blacks that white attitudes had not changed were confirmed when Springbok prop Toks van der Linde was sent home in disgrace from New Zealand because he had called a black woman a "kaffir".

The year after, black attitudes hardened further when it was learned two provincial teams, the Lions (from Johannesburg) and the Bulls (Pretoria) had been fined for breaching quota regulations. They had insulted their black players by asking them to feign injuries early in matches so they could be replaced by whites.

It had been increasingly evident that attitudes amongst many whites had changed not a jot from apartheid days. This was sensationally confirmed last year when a popular former Springbok, Chester Williams, released his autobiography. Williams claimed racism was rampant in South African rugby and he had regularly been racially abused by teammates and provincial opposition players.

He said: "During the 1995 World Cup, the slogan was, 'One team one country'. That was a myth." Williams said his Bok teammate, James Small, had called him a kaffir but otherwise refused to speak him.

This apparent refusal to move with the times has manifested itself in other areas of the game. The discipline of South Africa's rugby players is the worst in the world. The Boks have had twice as many red and yellow cards as any of their opponents. More South African players have tested positive for banned substances than any other country.

This ill-discipline showed at Twickenham last November when England coach Clive Woodward launched a scathing post-match attack on the Boks, describing their constant foul play as a disgrace. Woodward sang the same tune in July when he backed Australia coach Eddie Jones who claimed the Boks had engaged in dirty play from first whistle until last of their match in Brisbane.

One player was consequently banned after being found guilty of eye-gouging, another was suspended because of a dangerous tackle that resulted in an Australian being stretchered from the field.

The image of South African rugby is at an all-time low. But the players are not always at fault. Last year, a drunken spectator hurdled a fence at Durban's King Park Stadium, ran on to the field, and heavily tackled the referee, David McHugh, who was was taken to hospital with a shoulder injury.

Which brings us to the present. Yesterday, shortly before the Cronje drama, coach Straeuli was dealing with an off-the-field incident involving one of his players, Lukas van Biljon. A week ago, Van Biljon was in a nightclub brawl that resulted in three teenagers laying a charge of assault against him. Two months ago, the same player was heavily disciplined for a similar offence, a brawl in a pub. He later trashed his hotel room.

In short, there appears to be something badly rotten in the land of the Springbok. When they emerged from isolation in 1992, the Boks had the proudest record in the world, better even than the mighty All Blacks. But since then their performances have rapidly declined. Now the only record they are setting are record defeats.

Many would say they are getting what they deserve, that their on-field performances are symptomatic of the greater ills pervading the game in this country.

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