Winning West Samoans achieve conversion in the townships

South Africa/ rugby heroes
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EVERYONE knows rugby is a religion to Afrikaners, but the scenes in the Basil Kenyon Stadium in East London were out of the ordinary: a large section of the crowd, and the most ecstatic, was black. The Western Samoans had just scored a last-minute try to snatch victory from Argentina and ensure qualification for the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup.

In East London, not one of South Africa's most exciting cities, this was the stuff of delirium. The Pacific islanders were given a standing ovation and a passionate rendition of "Shosholoza", the black workers' chant which has been adopted as an anthem by the national team.

The Samoans went on a lap of honour to wave goodbye to the city which had hosted them for the previous two weeks. On their way round, they started to take a short cut, missing out the eastern end of the ground where a large number of schoolchildren were standing, but Peter Fatialofa, the team captain, called his team back and took them right up to the fence behind the posts, where they performed the manu war dance.

"Man, the kids almost pushed the fence over, they were so excited," said Andre de Wet, a Springbok on the protest-riddled British tour of 1979- 80, who now represents the ANC in the provincial legislature.

In the bad old days of apartheid, it was broadly true that the Afrikaners played rugby, English-speaking whites played cricket, and the blacks preferred football. That governed the speed and sincerity of efforts to integrate each sport - when mixed soccer teams were commonplace and the cricket authorities were funding extensive black township development programmes, many associated with rugby preferred to believe, in the words of the Springbok hooker, Uli Schmidt, barely two years ago: "I do not think our blacks are really made to play rugby. It is just not in their culture."

The Eastern Cape, however, exposes that as a convenient fiction. The British settlers planted in the region by the colonial authorities in the 1820s imbued the local black population with a love of rugby found nowhere else in the country. Around East London and Port Elizabeth there are thousands of black players and dozens of clubs, some more than 100 years old.

Not that the white authorities wanted to know. "In 1989, when I was given the task of improving relations with black clubs, the white union knew of the existence of precisely three," said Mr de Wet.

"Apartheid wanted racial rugby, and we refused to have anything to do with that," said Dan Qeqe, chairman of the Springrose club. "If you wanted to watch touring sides, there was a very small area of the stadium reserved for blacks. You couldn't sit where you wanted, and some took exception to that. Even I was among those who would support any foreign team against the South African side."

Things have moved on since then, but for the impoverished black clubs, still languishing without facilities or coaching, and consequent poor playing standards, the Western Samoans have been an inspiration. "Maybe it was something to do with the fact that our skins are more their colour than are the other teams," said Tate Simi, the Samoan team manager. Mr Qeqe agreed: "When the Samoans play, there is definitely a colour affinity, and now we identify with their success."

Although the Tongans share the same ethnic background, and black Africa is represented by the Ivory Coast team, it is the Samoans' ability to match the best in what many people of all colours in South Africa still consider a white man's sport that enraptured East London. By the end of their stay the foyer of the Holiday Inn was constantly filled with well- wishers. "They were tremendously popular," said Charles Drewe, deputy manager of the hotel. "They really captured the imagination of the town."

In particular, a bond was formed between the Samoans and the Xhosas, the second largest black group in the country, and the one into which President Nelson Mandela and many other ANC leaders were born.

When the team arrived in East London the staff of their hotel greeted them in Xhosa costume with a Xhosa chant. The team returned the compliment when they left on Thursday, with a Samoan song of farewell. "There was a very strong affinity between us and the Xhosa people," Mr Simi said.

Whether the Samoan example can spread the rugby culture among blacks in other parts of South Africa remains to be seen, but a Zulu welcoming party awaited them when they arrived in Durban for today's match against England. If these islanders from the Pacific turn South Africa's largest and most warlike tribe on to rugby, the rest of the world should tremble.