Rugby Union: Springbok missionaries lose their zeal

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THERE is a battle being fought by the Springboks in France which has only a passing connection with tomorrow's first Test. It is a battle, a crusade if you like, for the hearts and minds of those for whom South Africa's re-entry into respectable rugby society is a source of suspicion rather than joy.

This is not necessarily a political point; if this tour is good enough for the African National Congress, it needs no other blessing. It is more obviously a rugby point; what is especially welcome is the humility that has come with defeat - back home and here in France - and with it an end to the fatuous, insulting talk that the Springboks were the real world champions.

Australia gave the lie to that one in Cape Town two months ago. And not only are they the real world champions, they are also the world champions in the field of image-making and public relations. In short, everyone likes the Wallabies; now everyone has to get to like the Springboks.

But is it happening? Will it happen? The tourists have come out of the laager with the best of intentions; they are affable and keen to please. But at the same time they are the ingenus, the naive ones, of the rugby world. They are coping with pressures and problems that are entirely unfamiliar after the years of boycott. The All Blacks, who are infinitely more dour than these smiling Springboks and could hardly be called naive, are the living proof that popularity is not the automatic corollary of success.

The feeling was reinforced when the tourists reached Lyons from Marseilles on Wednesday. For the rest of this week Springbok training would be behind closed doors, so when Le Progres, one of the Lyonnais newspapers, asked for a few minutes' access to take a photograph the answer was no. When the paper's reporter asked a second time, the manager advised him that when the South African press party arrived they would have plenty to spare. It was a poor joke and the result was a chiding for the 'Boks in yesterday's edition.

Now the Springboks are not the only ones who train in camera to avoid the cameras - England and even Australia have been known to shut up shop. But it is impossible to imagine the Wallabies failing to co-operate with any initiative to promote a match which is a missionary venture in a city which is scarcely a rugby hotbed.

Let us put it down, charitably, to inexperience and in any case perhaps it did not matter, since fewer than 4,000 of the 44,000 tickets for the Stade Gerland remained unsold last night. But still . . . however serious international rugby has become, it would have done no harm for the Springboks to open their hearts to Lyons as they did a fortnight ago to Bordeaux. Now not only is training out of bounds, interviews were banned as of yesterday morning as well.

The irresistible symbolism - a retreat into the laager - is not fair, but it is fair to say that, with their first Test outside South Africa since 1981 imminent, the 'Bok image-makers should be getting to work. Instead we do not even have the benefit of the media-liaison man who was appointed for this very task. He has yet to arrive.

In appointing Nic Labuschagne, the South African Rugby Football Union had taken a leaf out of the Australians' book (though the estimable Greg Campbell has surprisingly been omitted from the Wallaby tour of Ireland and Wales). Campbell had set the necessary example by doing a superb job in South Africa, not least in the aftermath of the anthem affair which nearly scuppered the Springbok-Wallaby Test.

Campbell used to be a journalist, and so instinctively knows how to promote a story. He is rugby's version of a spin-doctor. Labuschagne, on the other hand, comes from a different direction: a hooker who played five times for England (yes, England), he is the South African director of the 1995 World Cup.

Are these the right credentials for media liaison? Well we would find out if he were here, though his credibility was diminished by his removal as president of the Natal Rugby Union. And in any case the way the tour management as a whole was appointed was a sorry reflection of the internal divisions within the SARFU.

To begin with, Johan Claassen, a distinguished lock of the Fifties but an ineffectual manager of the explosive 1981 tour of New Zealand, was appointed manager. After an outcry he was booted sideways to become the SARFU's 'tour representative', with Abie Malan, a rugged old hooker of similar vintage, becoming manager.

The shenanigans over the coaches were still more embarrassing. John Williams, a lock who faced the Lions in 1974, was always the main man but Williams's choice of assistant, the Northern Transvaal backs' coach, Eugene van Wyk, was rejected because he had never been an international - a disqualification that would rule out the hugely successful coach of Australia, Bob Dwyer.

Instead Danie Craven, the 81- year-old SARFU president, imposed Ian Kirkpatrick, a Springbok threequarter from the Claassen era, in preference to Van Wyk. All told, there are eight members of the management team, eight backroom crusaders on behalf of the new South Africa: not bad considering that Craven complained that 'hordes of officials' had accompanied the Wallabies in South Africa.