Rugby Union: Luyt takes lessons in humility: Admired Engelbrecht springs back from the brink of sacking by South Africa's dictatorial president

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHILE the alarm bells might be ringing at Rugby World Cup Ltd, it is a pleasing measure of the normality that has descended on South Africa that the week's front pages have been dominated by the unseemly row over whether to sack the Springbok manager and coach.

Even the government has felt compelled to join the fray. The minister of sport, Steve Tshwete, who until not too long ago was locked up in jail with Nelson Mandela for 'terrorism', issued a statement on Tuesday saying that rugby did not 'deserve all this rumpus'. It might be argued that Tshwete was being unduly generous to his erstwhile white tormentors.

At the eye of the storm is the president of the South African Rugby Football Union, Louis Luyt, an enthusiastic funder of the ruling National Party during the Seventies, apartheid's dark age. Luyt, the South African in charge of next year's World Cup, described the Springbok manager, Jannie Engelbrecht, as 'a has-been' and coach Ian McIntosh as 'a failure' upon the return of the squad from their tour of New Zealand. He declared that their international careers were over.

The initial reaction of Engelbrecht upon arrival at Johannesburg Airport, where they received a warm welcome from rugby fans, was one of surprise. They lost only one provincial match, drew one Test and lost the other two by narrow margins.

John Robbie, the former Ireland and Lions scrum-half, commented on a Johannesburg radio programme he now hosts that, given 'the shambles' McIntosh inherited, the Springboks should be 'congratulated, not nailed'.

Luyt, however, is not a man known for his sense of perspective, acting as if defeat for the Springboks implied a direct affront to his own colossal self-esteem. Luyt's 'l'etat c'est moi' habit of mind is a phenomenon with which the directors of the World Cup are already painfully familiar. This week the RWC financial director Marcel Martin was quoted in the Johannesburg press as saying that Luyt should realise that the game was far bigger than he was.

What is Luyt's problem?

Partly he is an expression of that pig-headed, head-in- the-sand arrogance to which many members of the Afrikaner establishment fell prey during the years of international isolation. Partly, perhaps, it is to do with his own rags-to-riches background.

History records that he pulled himself up from a low- paid job on the railways to become a millionaire. As a certain grocer's daughter in Britain has shown, the secret of self-made success is sometimes to possess an irrational - not to say bullying and insensitive - measure of self- belief. While this is a quality Britain arguably required in the Eighties, it is clearly not what South African rugby requires in 1994. Cricket's Ali Bacher has shown the way and Jannie Engelbrecht has followed. Courteous, under- stated diplomatic - everything that Luyt is not - Engelbrecht was widely admired in New Zealand. When news reached Auckland of Luyt's plans to dismiss him, the president of the New Zealand rugby union wrote to the SARFU appealing for sanity.

On Wednesday, SARFU met in Cape Town and, pressed by the overwhelming logic of the case into resisting Luyt, pledged to keep Engelbrecht as manager until after the World Cup. Whether Luyt has learned a lesson in humility may be known after a final decision is taken on McIntosh. The betting yesterday was that he would be sacked and replaced by someone from Luyt's own Transvaal provincial stable.

Comments