Rugby League: Blacks turn their backs on 'the monster': South African townships show extraordinary enthusiam for the game. Dave Hadfield reports from Johannesburg

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THE BEMUSED faces on the interminable streets of Soweto said it all: three whites in a 'bakkie' - the ubiquitous Transvaal pick-up truck - full of rugby balls. Even in the changing climate of South African sport this was surely a major navigational error.

This is not, however, a belated invitation to play rugby union, a game known in the black townships as 'the monster' and which, as far as they are concerned, the Afrikaners can keep. It is an introduction to rugby league, which is being vigorously promoted as a new sport for a new South Africa.

Dave Southern, a 28-year-old from Widnes, spends his days doing something which alternately impresses and baffles his white friends, taking the game he loves into places like Soweto, Alexandra and Kagiso, which, to them, are bywords for danger and violence.

His experience, and mine with him, is quite different. What he finds when he arrives on a township dustbowl pitch with an eccentric cargo of rugby balls is a hunger to learn an unfamiliar game that is almost overwhelming.

During the school holidays, the only way to spread word of a quickly arranged coaching session is to dispatch runners from door to door. Even that is misleading, because not everyone has a door; when Southern took one boy home after a match he found that 'home' was an awning attached to a tree.

Word of mouth attracted 60 kids to a well-appointed football ground, funded by a petrol company, overlooking the smoking shacks of Alexandra, with the Zulu hostels looming ominously in the background. They ranged from two-year-old Vincent, brought along by his brother because there was nowhere else for him to go, to gangling six-footers like 'Knowledge' - already armed with the knowledge of how to throw a phenomenal spin pass.

Local teachers regard it as part of their responsibilities to come along to the sessions, to learn what they can in order to be able to carry on the coaching when the bakkie has moved on. Ten minutes after being shown how to pass a ball, they are instructing the children.

If this enthusiasm makes township coaching a delight, there are still problems which people who complain about the difficulty of getting the code established in new areas of Britain can hardly imagine.

The best plans can founder on an outbreak of the taxi-wars which afflict the townships and can cut off whole sections from each other. One of the game's workers in Cape Town was a casualty of the industry's inflamed passions - he is in Groote Schuur hospital with three bullet wounds inflicted by an irate driver.

Facilities are frequently basic. Alkah Stadium was described as the best in Soweto, but it is merely a field worn bare by constant use. The sports ground at Kagiso in the West Rand once had a fence around it, but the corrugated iron fell victim to more urgent needs when it was carried off to repair shanties.

It is also doubtful whether coaches elsewhere in the world would lose a corner of their pitch to a troop of schoolchildren practising Zulu dancing. More annoying, was the way that the well-funded rugby union development officer drove up at the end of a two-hour league session in Kagiso and distributed T-shirts and oranges.

Under international pressure, the South African Rugby Football Union is dipping its toes warily into the townships, but has not yet braved Soweto. The African National Congress-run Schools Sports Congress there says that it does not want the organisation and the national sports festival for black schools next year will include league but not union.

A greater threat to league's progress in South Africa comes from within. An internal split was largely responsible for the failure in 1963 of the previous attempt to establish the game here and there is a hint of deja vu in some recent events.

Southern has fallen out with the South African Rugby Football League, claiming it does not devote enough energy to the townships and is now working on a joint venture with baseball and basketball. The SARFL, according to its dissident breakaway faction, has misused development funds and shown signs of racism.

On the other hand, SARFL points to a 16-team, mixed-race competition centred on Johannesburg and Pretoria which kicks off in October. In the very different atmosphere of Cape Town, where the black population were taught rugby by Scottish missionaries long before any Dutchman picked up a ball, there will be an eight-team league and Durban and Pietermaritzburg will also have competitions.

The national coach, Paul Matete, also has a sevens tournament involving 99 teams, mainly from black schools, lined up for August. One of Australia's best sides, North Sydney, are to play in Cape Town and Johannesburg in October and, beyond that, the Rhinos - as the national league side are known - are looking forward to a British amateur tour next year and remain adamant that they should be in the World Cup in 1995.

Ray Mordt, the former Springbok rugby union wing who played rugby league for Wigan in the mid-1980s and now, conveniently reinstated, coaches Transvaal in the Currie Cup, is as well placed as anyone to assess the eventual impact of all this activity. As a high-profile union figure with strong league sympathies, he sees no way, despite internal quarrels, that it can be stopped.

'Rugby union had better get used to the idea that rugby league is going to be played in South Africa,' he says. 'The only question is how big it is going to be.'

(Photograph omitted)