Heads roll in SA top-level clearout

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The Independent Online

Brian van Rooyen, a 41-year-old businessman, rode into Cape Town from Johannesburg last week armed with a brand-new torch to shine into the darkest corners of South Africa's rugby structure.

Having lost an election to then president Louis Luyt a few years ago, the ambitious Van Rooyen finally became Sarfu president when the incumbent, Silas Nkanunu, resigned in the wake of the ongoing crisis in the Springbok game, which was underlined by a quarter-final exit in the World Cup.

The price of failure is high in South Africa, though the infamous Kamp Staalraad did much to hasten the clearout. Nkanunu's departure followed the resignations of chief executive Rian Oberholzer (ironically Luyt's son-in-law) and coach Rudolf Straeuli.

Yet, South Africans are accustomed to overcoming adversity. Hours after Van Rooyen was swept into office on a wave of optimism, the Springboks won the opening sevens title on this season's circuit, beating New Zealand 33-26 in the Dubai final, having eliminated the favourites, England, 13-12 en route.

Nkanunu, who will lose his place as IRB vice-chairman having been voted in only weeks ago, said the transformation process "had failed", while black Springboks, including the veteran wing Breyton Paulse, have come out and blamed Straeuli for making them feel they were token selections at the World Cup.

In fact, the controversial quota system, which is enforced by government in all South African sports with the exception of football, is to be one of the first issues addressed by Van Rooyen. He has promised to scrap racial quotas at Springbok level, which will win him thousands of new friends among the right-wing fraternity.

"Some blame transformation for the poor rugby we play. Wrong team selection and pathetic coaching are the main culprits," Van Rooyen said.

If Van Rooyen's word holds up, every Springbok side during his tenure will be picked on merit, allowing black players to know they deserve their place at the highest level when picked. It will also please Nick Mallett, the overwhelming favourite among South Africans to become national coach for the second time.

Currently at Stade Français, Mallett, who was fired in 2000 after criticising Sarfu's ticket-price policy despite an impressive set of results, has long expressed an opinion that he would like to return for unfinished business, "on his terms". Those terms are believed to include that he is left alone to do his job, without outside interference.

Van Rooyen said the issue of the new coach would be settled "as a priority". On one popular website the outspoken Mallett had the backing of 75 per cent of voters, as the Springboks search for their 10th coach since returning from isolation in 1992.

Across the ocean, the New Zealand coach, John Mitchell, received the backing of 57 per cent of voters to keep his job in a poll, despite their World Cup disappointment. Graham Henry, his rival for the post, won 32 per cent of the vote.