Rugby Union: England put the Third World first: Tourists' clinic a welcome aid to black progress. Steve Bale reports from Soshanguve

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The Independent Online
IN THE half-hour it takes them to get from Pretoria yesterday, England effortlessly pass from the first world to the third, from the manicured heaven of Loftus Versfeld to the heat and dust of the only rugby pitch in a township of 50,000 people.

The 15 players who volunteer to lend their expertise to the raw talent of Soshanguve see the other side of South Africa - and of South African rugby. 'It's a bit of a shock to come here,' Steve Ojomoh sighs. In fact they are in a nice part of town; a mile away there are acres of tin shacks.

Ojomoh and his fellow-Nigerians, Victor Ubogu and Adedayo Adebayo, are guests of honour, because if anyone can demonstrate the capacity of black players to progress it is them. 'They find it very strange for us to be playing in an England team,' Ojomoh says.

Test-match week or not, the only surprise is that all 30 do not turn up: only Ubogu, Jason Leonard and Rory Underwood of the Test side, though Will Carling meant to come until an upset stomach caused his premature exit from yesterday morning's practice.

Even without the captain, the visit is a success. There are 300 beneficiaries, from nine years of age to adulthood. 'We can show them that if you work hard as a black guy you can get on in rugby,' Blikkies Groenewald, the Northern Transvaal Rugby Union's development manager, says.

The very fact that rugby is starting from nothing in the townships betrays years of apartheid-induced neglect. The Northern Transvaal union will spend up to 600,000 rand ( pounds 120,000) on its development programme this year and hardly touch the surface.

Technikon Northern Transvaal, the school where yesterday's coaching was carried out, did not have a team at all until this year and rugby at Mendunsa, the medical university whose team are present, is only a year old. They are the first black club to enter the Northern Transvaal league structure.

There is a fast-growing number of youngsters wanting to play the game - and nowhere for them to play. 'I'd rather be slow than create expectations that we can't satisfy,' Groenewald says. 'But we are absolutely determined that we are going to give every kid an opportunity to get involved in this game.'

There is another glaring deficiency: teaching people with no rugby background to teach the game. Chris Morton, late of Telford RFC and now a Northern Transvaal RU development officer, coaches and manages Mendunsa, but none of the black coaches he is developing has been a player.

Not even Benny Kekana, another NTRU development officer, has kicked or passed in anger. But Kekana's African National Congress connections and credibility as a former prisoner have made his appointment as astute as any the NTRU has made.

Even now, Kekana is not convinced of his union's wholeheartedness and for him talk of 600,000 rand is rather loose. 'I still have certain doubts,' he said. ' If you're working on a budget, you should know what the budget is. I don't know what the budget is.'

Nor is there any use pretending rugby does not remain the white man's game. That blacks prefer football is a simple statement of fact, and there have been scarcely any black faces at England's tour matches. If Steve Noi, the head of sport at Technikon, carries out his intention to take the school team to Loftus for tomorrow's first Test they will be notable by their presence.

As Noi's pupils and the rest get down to the business of scrummaging practice and line-out drills, the media horde is joined by Steve Tshwete, minister for sport in the new government. Tshwete is the former political prisoner who marked out his own rugby pitch on Robben Island.

He is taken aback, and impressed, that there is even one rugby pitch in Soshanguve, let alone that another is about to be laid by the union half a mile down the road. But compare this with the hundreds of pristine pitches just 20 miles away in white Pretoria and it does not seem so impressive.

Notwithstanding the disparity, Tshwete wants to be reassuring. 'We want whites to see we believe in merit selection but it has to be backed by a vibrant, visible development programme and still more needs to be done,' he says.

With that the minister is engulfed by television cameras - and the kids, like kids anywhere, contentedly play on. 'It's been a very fulfilling day,' Ojomoh says, the light of modest pride shining from his Africa-dark eyes.