Rainbow Nation a reality at last for White's multi-coloured Springboks

South Africa put racism behind them in pursuit of Home Nations clean sweep.
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The Independent Online

News to the contrary may yet emerge, but all available evidence indicates that the Springboks have been training with their clothes on. They have not, as far as we know, been subjected to any sadomasochistic bonding exercises - nude wrestling, naked swamp-swimming, hand-to-hand combat in the buff - and, more importantly still, appear to have consigned to the incinerator of history any lingering racism of the kind that disfigured their preparations for last year's World Cup. The South Africans who arrive on these shores today may well amount to the most enlightened band of Bokke ever to tour here. Good on them.

News to the contrary may yet emerge, but all available evidence indicates that the Springboks have been training with their clothes on. They have not, as far as we know, been subjected to any sadomasochistic bonding exercises - nude wrestling, naked swamp-swimming, hand-to-hand combat in the buff - and, more importantly still, appear to have consigned to the incinerator of history any lingering racism of the kind that disfigured their preparations for last year's World Cup. The South Africans who arrive on these shores today may well amount to the most enlightened band of Bokke ever to tour here. Good on them.

Almost a third of the 34-strong party are non-white, and they include the first Rastafarian to secure a professional rugby contract in the republic, the centre Gcobani Bobo, who also happens to be the first black man to captain a South African representative side (this honour was bestowed upon him at both under-17 and under-19 levels). The wing Jongi Nokwe hails from the Ciskei and was educated at the Ngxalawe primary and Kwamfumdo secondary schools - a very far cry indeed from traditional rugby nurseries like Grey College in Bloemfontein and Diocesan College in Cape Town. Tim Dlulane, a flanker from Umtata, and Solomzi Tyibilika, a breakaway forward from Port Elizabeth, have their own stories to tell, and they are unlikely to have much in common with those of their forebears in the green shirt of dreams.

These, as well as the Percy Montgomerys and Jaco van der Westhuyzens and Joe van Niekerks, are the people who will chase a first Grand Slam triumph in the British Isles since 1960-61, when Avril Malan of the Transvaal led the all-white Boks to victory over each of the four home unions. The fact that these South Africans are fired, rather than cowed, by the prospect of an unusually demanding month of activity beginning with this weekend's tangle with the Welsh in Cardiff is proof of their emotional and physical well-being under the stewardship of Jake White, who succeeded Rudi Straeuli as national coach earlier this year.

White is not the first free-thinking modernist to attempt to make sense of the most politically challenging job in world rugby; Nick Mallett, the multilingual intellectual heavyweight who led the Boks to 17 successive victories in the late 1990s, was hardly one of life's fossilised conservatives. But the incumbent has made a series of bold statements about the importance of an inclusive approach, and backed up his words by winning the Tri-Nations title at his first attempt - a victory that took South Africa to the apex of the southern hemisphere game and exploded the theory put forward by the hard-heads of old that any squad selected along multiracial lines was, by definition, a weak one.

Springbok rugby is subject to pressures wholly unknown outside its borders. When Straeuli wanted to drop the black prop Lawrence Sephaka and instal the up-country strongman Christo Bezuidenhout for last year's World Cup pool match with England, the situation was deemed so sensitive he felt obliged to seek government permission. Even now, the internal power struggles and personality clashes are more loaded than anywhere else in the world. Only last Friday, Andre Markgraaff was elected deputy president of SA Rugby, seven years after leaving the Bokke coaching job in disgrace after a particularly unpleasant scandal of the racially-driven variety. Markgraaff is now one of his country's two representatives on the International Rugby Board.

Yet White appears to have secured the confidence of all sections of the Springbok public, despite his strong liberal stance on the most divisive of issues. Corne Krige, the former national captain now playing Premiership rugby with Northampton, had severe reservations as to whether White would cut it at the top level, but now openly admits to his mistake. That Tri-Nations success, forged in the fires of resourceful performances in New Zealand and Australia, and brought to fruition through outstanding victories over both the All Blacks and the Wallabies at home, persuaded Krige and 99 per cent of his fellow doubters to revise their opinions. According to Mallett, who knows a thing or two about this game, the Boks will take a good deal of stopping on this trip. "This is an excellent opportunity for a victorious Grand Slam tour," he said this week. "Jake has a big advantage in that the team are playing only Tests. When we toured in 1998, we also played during the week, which made it difficult to concentrate solely on the Saturday. Two teams in the same squad can easily lead to unhealthy competition. Jake has a squad that has not been overworked; the group has been well compiled and he can easily mix and match. If they do not get unexpected setbacks in the form of serious injuries, it will be difficult to keep four consecutive victories away from them."

The Boks are certainly close to full strength. The best forwards from the World Cup - the lock Bakkies Botha and the loose forward Juan Smith - have been joined by the gargantuan loose-head prop Os du Randt, who missed the tournament, and the brilliant blond-bombshell newcomer Schalk Burger, who was a fringe player 12 months ago. Burger was named South Africa's player of the year before the squad's departure from Johannesburg, and there is no realistic prospect of him stopping there. By the middle of next month, he will have more awards than Martin Scorsese. And outside the scrum? More good news, in the shape of the rehabilitated exiles, Montgomery and Van der Westhuyzen, both of whom bring a cutting edge to a back division that, under Straeuli, looked about as sharp as a lump hammer.

A little over a year ago, the Boks came across as a 21st century outfit with Bronze-Age tendencies - a team burdened by the publicity surrounding the alleged refusal of their high-veld lock forward, Geo Cronje, to share a training-camp room with a black colleague. Today, they stand tall, transformed by broadminded attitudes off the pitch and success on it. A Grand Slam is a distinct possibility, and if White pulls it off over the next few weeks, a world title in 2007 will be comfortably within his orbit.

Bouncing Boks

South Africa's revival

In their 2003 World Cup group games, South Africa beat Uruguay 72-6 and Georgia 46-19, but lost 25-6 to England. In the knock-out games, they beat Samoa 60-10 before losing 29-9 to the All Blacks in the quarter-finals.

12 June: South Africa 31-17 Ireland (Bloemfontein)

19: South Africa 26-17 Ireland (Cape Town)

26: South Africa 53-18 Wales (Pretoria)

17 July: Pacific Islands XV 24-38 South Africa (Gosford, Australia)

24: Tri-Nations: New Zealand 23-21 South Africa, (Christchurch)

31: Australia 30-26 South Africa (Perth)

14 August: South Africa 40-26 New Zealand (Johannesburg)

21: South Africa 23-19 Australia (Durban)

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