Rugby to spearhead South Africa's transformation, says team manager

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The Independent Online

At last, a little dignity. Four days after the latest outbreak of Springbok hostility towards England - verbal rather than physical, but done with meaning all the same - the South Africans' team manager, Gideon Sam, managed to make a series of intelligent points about his country's approach to this World Cup and their position in the international game, without resorting to the gutter tactics of veiled threats and psychological one-upmanship. The man deserves a medal.

A prominent anti-apartheid activist who played rugby in the Eastern Cape before moving into sports administration, Sam was questioned hard about the recent racism scandal involving Geo Cronje, the white Springbok lock who allegedly refused to share a room with a black colleague during a World Cup training camp in Pretoria - an incident that will be investigated next year by way of an independent inquiry. His response was open, honest and deeply impressive.

"We are not shirking the challenge of transformation," he said. "We know we come from a divided past, and that it will take generations for our people to learn to live together. What happened in the past few weeks is something we are now working on, because we want the process of transformation to be spearheaded by rugby. We are a young democracy, and as sports people we do not live in a vacuum but in the real South Africa - a country facing real problems in the real world. And I would like to say this: following the recent incidents, management and players have grown closer together, and the squad has grown stronger. The whole country will be looking at our performance in this competition, and we welcome that."

What Sam will not have welcomed was the behaviour of the Springbok skipper, Corne Krige, who caused an almighty fuss by accusing Martin Johnson, his English counterpart, of being "one of the dirtiest captains in world rugby". The comment was very much on yesterday's agenda, and Krige freely admitted his error of judgement. But the atmosphere surrounding next week's Pool C match between the two countries remains distinctly bitter. "There is always a game within a game," Krige said, cryptically, "and it has to be played."

There was a sharp response to Krige's comments from Clive Woodward, the England coach, who had intended to name his side for Sunday's opening match with Georgia before opting for a delay of 24 hours. "It's not only Krige," he said. "It comes from a lot of coaches and players, pretty much whoever we play against. We've become used to it. Every now and then, I think it's up to me to fire a few barrages back but when I do, everyone goes mad about it. So we politely sit here and cop all this rubbish.

"If you saw the players' reaction in the team room, you would find it quite amusing. A few years ago, it might have worried us. Now we just smile about it because we know there is nothing we can do. I think we handle ourselves well - I don't think we get involved in sledging or cause problems. It's part of the baggage you carry as the England rugby team. I would be very annoyed if any of my players retaliated. We should always take the high ground."

Stuart Abbott, the South African-born centre from Wasps, did not train yesterday because of an intriguing condition identified as "general stiffness". He was expected to unstiffen himself in time for today's run-out.