Rugby Union: South Africa needs a show of unity

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THE uncertainty surrounding England's cricket tour to a country as politically volatile as India has cast renewed doubts on the wisdom of staging the 1995 rugby union World Cup in South Africa. The point of no return for a decision will be immediately after the directors of Rugby World Cup Ltd (RWC) have visited the republic in January.

According to one of the directors, Russ Thomas, the contingency plans should South Africa prove to be unsuitable as a venue have not even been discussed, far less formulated, but the truth of the matter is that there would be very few options open to them.

There are only two suitable alternatives at this late stage, one being New Zealand, the other Britain, probably England and Wales, with the latter option being the more desirable financially.

Another alternative might be to play the pool matches at a number of European centres in the Netherlands, Italy and France, with the later stages being held in the home countries, which is an interesting concept from a promotional point of view but is more realistically something to be considered for the future.

The concern for the tournament organisers is the apparent unpredictability of groups like the National Sports Congress, a powerful body representing mainly black sportsmen and women in South Africa.

It was the NSC which jeopardised the recent South African tour of England by withdrawing its support after the French leg of the tour. This volte-face, so soon after giving the tour its full blessing, was seen by many to be a spiteful and irresponsible action which set the alarm bells ringing. If the NSC could so easily disrupt a tour, it could surely wreck the World Cup.

The NSC, however, maintains that it was fully justified in adopting the stance it did. It believed that the quickest and most effective method of raising money for the development of the game among the black and 'coloured' communities would be by means of an international tour. But its support for the tour was based on the assumption that it would be a short, sharp reintroduction to international competition overseas for the national side alone.

What it did not reckon on was the mass exodus that followed with South African Defence Forces touring Spain, Romania and Italy, Transvaal touring England and, most insensitive of all, the development tour to the South Pacific, a monumental miscalculation on and off the field, which set the unification process back months.

This tour was the brainchild of Dr Danie Craven and had been organised unbeknown even to the executive of the South African Rugby Football Union. For the NSC, this was the straw which so nearly broke the Springboks' back.

But its decision to pull back from the brink and allow the tour to proceed, far from diminishing its status and authority, has not only provided the stimulus for the meetings which are now taking place between the various bodies, but may well have saved the World Cup for South Africa.

The NSC recognises, of course, that an event of such global appeal as the World Cup is as important a promotional platform for itself as it is for South African rugby and that its interests would be best served by allowing the tournament to take place.

Significantly, the ailing Dr Craven, whose not always benign dictatorship of the South African game is fast being overtaken by the forces of democracy, has not been present at any of the recent meetings with the NSC.

Until now, rugby has been one of the few sports not affiliated to the NSC but this is likely to change in the near future. The important thing is that both sides are talking and at last real progress is being made.

The SARFU recognises that its development programme cannot survive in the townships without the active support of the NSC and, to that end, Piet Marais, the Information minister, has met representatives from both sides to discuss the launch of the development programme.

Furthermore, an important step was taken last week with the announcement that rugby facilities at 8,000 white schools would be made available to black and coloured youngsters.

The directors of RWC, whose optimism is based on past events and may therefore be outdated, will nevertheless require strong evidence of improved relations between the SARFU and the NSC and proof that satisfactory progress is being made in the development of the game before it considers awarding the World Cup to South Africa.

It may yet be pleasantly surprised. If the fresh impetus which has been given to negotiations since the Springboks' tour can be maintained - and there is every reason to believe that it can - then RWC, which is understandably keen to hold its tournament in a country which is, in so many respects, ideally suited to hosting the event, will have its way.