Springboks risk race row on eve of England game

Omission of established black player for tomorrow's crucial pool match set to cause controversy in South Africa
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The Independent Online

Christo Bezuidenhout will replace Lawrence Sephaka in the front row of the South Africa scrum when the Springboks meet England at the Subicao Oval tomorrow in the pivotal match of the World Cup pool stage.

A straightforward decision, on the face of it. Sephaka under-performed against Uruguay last Saturday, while Bezuidenhout is an aggressive set-piece specialist who might just give his side an advantage when the two heavyweight packs confront each other in the search for quality possession.

Unfortunately, nothing is straightforward when it comes to South African rugby. Bezuidenhout is a white player from the high veld - he plays for the Mpumalanga Pumas, formerly known as South Eastern Transvaal - while Sephaka is a black player, the first "African", to use the Springboks' own term, to represent his country at full Test level. The former has played only 39 minutes of international rugby, having won his first cap as a replacement against New Zealand in Dunedin in August; the latter, firmly established as the senior loose-head prop in the South African party when this tournament began, has made 14 appearances in 22 months.

Some informed observers of the Springbok scene were flabbergasted at the decision. "This will cause one hell of a row back home," one said. "Certain people will use this as evidence that nothing has changed in South African rugby."

There has certainly been a degree of concern in liberal sporting circles at the shortage of non-white players in the World Cup. Apart from Sephaka, only the full-back Ricardo Loubscher, the wings Breyton Paulse and Ashwin Willemse, and the hooker Dale Santon made the cut, although Gcobani Bobo would have travelled as a centre had he not been injured in training. Of the five here, only Willemse will start tomorrow's game.

Rudi Straeuli, the coach, and Gideon Sam, the manager, both stressed that the decision had been made for tactical reasons, and tactical reasons alone. But it is thought that Sam contacted the office of Ngconde Balfour, the South African sports minister, before sanctioning the move.

"We have always maintained that we will manage our squad in such a way that gives every player an opportunity," Sam said yesterday. "We must talk of all 30 players, not just of one or two. There has been no discussion of the fact that Stefan Terblanche has yet to be involved, or Schalk Burger.

"We have five non-white players here and they will have their chance. And I should add that there is no doubt that this team is united. If anyone can prove that he has seen a definite case of disunity, he should come forward."

Since South Africa's return from sporting isolation and the advent of majority rule, Springbok coaches have operated in the most pressurised team management environment in world rugby. The issue of quota systems for non-white players at provincial level has generated endless argument, and recent charges of prejudicial behaviour by white players have raised the political temperature surrounding the game. An inquiry into an alleged racist incident during a World Cup training camp in Pretoria is scheduled to begin early next year.

There are three further changes to the side who scored 12 tries against Uruguay six days ago: Jaco van der Westhuyzen, an attacking full-back called into the squad when Jean de Villiers withdrew through injury, replaces Werner Greeff; Jorrie Muller comes in at outside-centre for Jaque Fourie, who hurt a knee last weekend; and the captain, Corne Krige, takes over from Danie Rossouw in the back row. Van der Westhuyzen has not played international rugby since the opening match of the Tri-Nations series against the Wallabies in Cape Town in July.

Given the humiliating circumstances of the Springboks' 50-point defeat at Twickenham last November, Straeuli needs all the help he can get. Yesterday, he received some from an unlikely source, the defending champions, Australia, who played another of their endless supply of anti-England cards by complaining about their mauling style.

The initial comments were made by John Eales, the former Wallaby captain, who said England should be penalised for obstruction, and this prompted a similar complaint by the Australian coach, Eddie Jones.

Straeuli was more than happy to climb on board. "Eales is an astute man who knows his rugby," he said. "I think he is right. England are illegal in that area."

Asked whether he would be raising the issue with tomorrow's referee, Peter Marshall - an Australian, don't you know - Straeuli replied: "I'll be raising a lot of issues with him, and that will be one of them. The rolling maul is a strong weapon for the English."

England reported that their injured scrum-halves, Matt Dawson and Kyran Bracken, had made sound progress and were expected to take their respective places in the 22-man party for the match.

SOUTH AFRICA (v England, tomorrow, Perth, 1pm BST): J van der Westhuyzen; A Willemse, J Muller, D W Barry, T Delport; L Koen, J van der Westhuizen; C Bezuidenhout, D Coetzee, R Bands, B Botha, V Matfield, C Krige (capt), J van Niekerk, J Smith. Replacements: J Smit, L Sephaka, S Boome, D Rossouw, N de Kock, Derick Hougaard, Werner Greeff.