"We have become the pride of our community," beams Andrew Nkwana, that self-same pride resonant in his voice. The Jabulani teacher and coach is not over-stating the case either, despite the predominant passion for football - for the Chiefs and the Pirates and Bafana Bafana - that drips from every dirt-track corner of the largest township in South Africa. Jabulani is not only playing rugby, but turning the game on its head by taking on the white schools of privileged Johannesburg - Florida Park, for instance, and John Orr High - and beating them.
Lawrence Yende, their best young player, is the first black schoolboy to be selected for the Transvaal Project Week XV while Sanele Mdakane and Nkosana Kumalo are being talked of as future Super 12 material for the Gauteng Lions. "It's very possible that, in less than a decade, a new Springbok captain could emerge from the schools and youth clubs of Soweto," says Sas Bailey, the South African Rugby Football Union's general manager of rugby development and promotion.
Twelve hundred miles away in Cape Town, Morne du Plessis, a great Springbok captain and even greater Bokke manager, talks enthusiastically - no, evangelically - about applying the expertise of his Institute of Sports Science to the fledgling rugby hinterland of the western cape townships. "If we get it right, the sky's the limit," he says. Up the coast in Port Elizabeth, where the tradition of non-white rugby runs far deeper than in the high- veld strongholds of the Transvaal and the Free State, a black captain of the South African Under-21 national side has already emerged in the gifted shape of Sean Plaatjies.
When the Lions were last in South Africa in 1980, multi-racial rugby was no more than a cosmetic joke, and a not very funny one at that. Those with eyes to see quickly realised that for all the fine words of Dr Danie Craven and the genuine far-sightedness of the odd conscience-driven international player, a half-hearted flirtation with tokenism was as much as the ultra- conservative brotherhood of the Springbok rugby hierarchy was prepared to contemplate.
And, to be sure, the battle is still there to be won. As one development worker in Port Elizabeth put it as the Lions held a coaching clinic for youngsters before their match with Eastern Province two and a half weeks ago: "I don't want to be pessimistic about this, but I would be surprised if more than one in seven of these kids have so much as touched a rugby ball before today, and I'll be absolutely amazed if more than a handful ever touch one again."
Yet inch by inch, brick by brick, the Jabulanis of South Africa are being constructed. "Look, when we started playing rugby at the school in 1989, we had eight youngsters interested in participating," says Nkwana. "We practised behind the school buildings and, in the first week, one of those eight had broken his arm. That was a real setback to us, because the problem for rugby in Soweto was not so much down to the old suspicions of the Afrikaaner game but because people considered it too rough, too dangerous. Thankfully, the injured boy came back to rugby as soon as his arm had healed. Now we run five teams with more than a hundred active players. A culture of rugby has been developed."
According to Nkwane, a number of Sowetan primary schools now act as feeders to Jabulani. "Children come just to play rugby, because they know they will get an opportunity to shine," he says. "Within two years we can be competitive at the top level of schools rugby. Yes, facilities are still poor. We still have problems with low self-esteem, nutritional disadvantages and all the rest of the difficulties common to those who live here. We do not play outside of greater Johannesburg simply because we have no way of financing such a trip. But we are moving in the right direction and that is the most important thing.
"Having created the culture, we now need to improve facilities. A visit from the Lions is not enough. Neither is it sufficient for the Springboks to come here once in a while and show themselves to the youngsters in Soweto. Unless we can produce a structure under which rugby is played continuously, some very good players may be lost to the game - perhaps to sport altogether. That would be terrible."
By way of avoiding that eventuality, the Gauteng provincial union is now pumping 125,000 Rand - almost pounds 20,000 - into each of three senior Soweto clubs on an annual basis. School sides are allocated just over pounds 4,000 a season and SARFU has coughed up over pounds 300,000 to finance grounds in the Sowetan districts of Orlando and Dobsonville. It is not enough - nowhere near enough, in all probability - but it is a start.
As for Jabulani, money is arriving from a most unexpected direction. Having been identified by the Gauteng union as having "both passion and potential" for what was once an alien game, they are now being sponsored by Virgin Atlantic. The school's Under-19 side may even play in Britain next year - no mean experience for players who have never set foot outside Johannesburg.
The word Jabulani translates directly as "happiness". Sowetan life is no bed of roses, but honest-to-goodness rugby men like Andrew Nkwana can at least afford the occasional smile.Reuse content