CAPE TOWN, S.A. – In any other country, a fringe Test player who is picked for an international squad would tend to be played – if all available players within his position got hurt. It would not matter that he had played a mere handful of professional games. If selected in the squad, then the coach must have faith in his ability. What you would not expect is for him to play 20 minutes off the bench at the beginning of the season, then be leapfrogged by two players who were brought into the squad as injury replacements; one a veteran on his last legs and another who has almost as little international experience as the original player in question.
But South Africa has never quite been one to follow the norms of rugby, especially with its well-politicized and well-publicized selection policies. Tehobo Mohoje (Oupa, to his friends) may only have made 10 appearances for the Free State Cheetahs in his debut season this year, but his barnstorming runs made him a selection in the Springbok squad at the beginning of the year. What followed though, was an utter fiasco… race related or not.
After a promising cameo against Scotland, there then followed an injury crisis in the backrow stocks of the Springboks. One might think the natural completion of Mohoje’s meteoric rise would have been to start for the Boks against the perennial underdogs of The Rugby Championship – Argentina. Instead, Heyneke Meyer went with the tried, tested, and VERY unfit Juan Smith, a man who unquestionably has been a Springbok superstar. That time has passed, however, before he was picked again to play this season.
Smith had a shocker of a performance, as the South African team couldn’t get any go-forward. They sorely needed a big ball-carrier, so the absence of Mohoje was even more noticeable as they very nearly Argentina’s first-ever TRC scalp. (The Aussies won that title on Saturday). Anyway, a game tailor-made for Mohoje’s no-nonsense style was taken away from him. Some argued about Meyer’s lack of trust in new players and inability to bring in new players and back them. Others had points of a political nature; saying it was due to race reasons. In other words, if Mohoje had been white… he would have played.
Meyer does back new players, though. He has brought in Loot De Jager, Jan Serfontein, Cornal Hendricks and Handré Pollard. But it is the players who are still there that are frustrating the Rainbow Nation. Victor Matfield still starts ahead of a much better all-rounder in De Jager, while the non-selection of Juan De Jongh still baffles people. Jannie Du Plessis is a spent force (watch that first Argentina game for confirmation), JP Pietersen is finished (and being played out of position!) and Morné Steyn should not be anywhere near the current setup. And just before any of you starts with, “Those young guys with some golden oldies just beat the All Blacks,” it took a dead-rubber, last-ditch, honour-saving match for Heyneke Meyer to actually let his players (and more importantly his new fly-half) play what they see in front of them. He didn’t force them to kick, kick, kick. So don’t say his policy is working. It’s not. It might work NOW, but look what it took for him to finally come round to the idea.
But back to Mohoje… Finally, he was selected to play two weeks ago against Australia in a must-win game for both credibility and points. HOWEVER, there is a caveat: Only Mohoje and Meyer will ever argue that he was chosen on merit, because in the back of everyone else’s mind there was the knowledge of the metres of print in which South African and international writers had re-ignited the simmering racial tensions within South African rugby. Most claimed Meyer had bowed to political and media pressure to start Mohoje, and that his continued absence in favour of white replacements was a sign of racism within the SARU structure. Others claimed that he had been selected as a potential excuse: if South Africa lost, Meyer could drop Mohoje and suggest that he had been right all along, that he was not ready for the international arena. This would enable Meyer to exclude Mohoje from the 2015 Rugby World Cup squad… Ask the right South African (or indeed wrong, person) and they will suggest that black and coloured players (Cape coloured etc, a race within itself in South Africa) are destined to fail because they are rarely supported by the SARU, who still pick white players, due to an horrendous and worrisome historical reasoning.
The situation becomes even more ludicrous in 2016 when all South African Super Rugby and Currie Cup teams will be required to have at least 50% of their side consisting of “players of colour.” Ask the players and they will tell you this is madness; they do not want to be selected because of their colour. They want to be selected because of their skill. They will tell you that the politicians are running the sport, not the coaches. However, push them and these same players will begrudgingly admit that if “players of colour” are not being selected, then maybe this is the best way.
The truth is there is no way politicized racial quotas should be permitted to play a part in our great game. But if players like Juan De Jongh, Elton Jantjies, Cheslin Kolbe and Gio Aplon are not being selected for the Boks… then maybe it’s the ONLY way.
As for Teboho Mohoje? Well, a friend of mine suggested he should take his Springbok caps (and possibly his World Cup starts next year) and go and get paid outrageous sums of money for his abilities in a place where his race will never be called into question… such as Japan or France.