CAPE TOWN – A new “Beast” could be in the making on a scruffy field in an impoverished South African township, where black children dream of sidestepping the race barrier into the Springbok rugby team.
Lamla Nunu is 13 years old and weighs a hefty 85 kilogrammes (190 pounds), a good start for a potential front-rower in a team known internationally for its physical aggression.
In the sprawling township of Khayelitsha in Cape Town, where volunteers are introducing young black children to a sport dominated by whites under apartheid, he plays prop.
That’s the same position as his Springbok hero, Zimbabwe-born Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira, who is also popular with South Africa’s mainly white Afrikaner supporters and receives an approving roar of “Beeaast” every time he surges forward with the ball tucked under his arm.
But Nunu will have to scrum hard to become the new Beast, who is the only regular black African player in the Springbok starting line-up.
Under pressure from the government, the South African Rugby Union (SARU) pledged to include seven non-white players in 23-man match squads in the run-up to the Rugby World Cup in England starting on September 18.
At least two of the seven non-whites in the 2015 squads would be black Africans, SARU said, distinguishing them from players of mixed race — known as “coloureds” — who have long played a role in Springbok teams.
But the matchday 23 for the first Springboks game of the season on July 11 against a World XV fell short of the target with three black Africans and two mixed race players chosen.
– Big dreams –
The commitment is part of plans for radical racial transformation in the traditionally white sport, which aims to have non-whites making up half of all domestic and national teams by 2019.
So perhaps by the time Nunu and the other 30 or so children on the field in Khayelitsha are old enough for a call-up, the times will have changed.
“I want to play for the Stormers (the Western Cape Super Rugby side) and the Springboks,” the 13-year-old wrecking-ball told AFP.
“I love everything about the game, how it goes, the rules, everything.”
“And the physicality,” adds coach Murray Ingram of the non-profit Connect Sports Academy. “He likes running into people.”
Nunu is shy in a brief interview, but when he trots off and takes on three other players in a mock scrum, they go backwards.
He is not the only potential Springbok on the field, says Ingram.
There is fleet-footed Ilitha Ntinini, 11, who prefers to be known as “Mr 10” — in recognition of his ambition to be the Springbok fly-half one day.
He weighs in at less than 40 kilogrammes, but “he will grow”, says Murray.
Nutrition is singled out as one of the issues facing any attempt to level the rugby playing field in South Africa.
The average white male teenager is more likely to eat steak than maize meal, which is the staple diet of South Africa’s poor.
But even if a black child grows up rough, tough and healthy, he is far less likely than his white counterparts to attend a school where good rugby training is available.
In crime-ridden Khayelitsha, where the field behind a shopping centre has no posts, the oval ball offers an after-school activity that doesn’t involve drugs or gang warfare.
“I spend most of my days here on the sports field so there’s no time to waste on gangster stuff,” says Litha Dyalvane,14, who plays centre.
“It’s cool when you get to know it.”
– Fierce debate –
The lack of posts on the field is symbolic of a lack of everything else for the wannabe Springboks — from boots to uniforms.
One thing there is not a lack of, says Ingram, is talent.
“A couple of the kids are exceptionally talented,” he says. “If they were from other circumstances they would already be at Bishops” or one of the other top South African schools known for their rugby prowess.
He is backed up by Andri Stander, the manager of the Western Cape Rugby Institute, where 18 to 20-year-old rugby stars of the future spend a full year training in world-class facilities.
“We’ve got great examples of players who came out of disadvantaged areas who have proven themselves time and time again… there is a lot of talent out there.”
Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula says racial transformation in rugby is “morally… the right thing to do considering the great injustices of the past.
“And strategically because of the reality that 84 percent of the country’s under 18-year-old population grouping is black African, and only 16 is white, coloured and Indian.”
Racial quotas in national rugby and cricket sides are a subject of fierce debate in South Africa, where football is by far the most popular sport among the black population.
Some fans of the traditionally “white” sports fear that the selection of players on anything other than merit would weaken the national teams.
Ingram’s answer is that the talent is there but has to be nurtured among the very young.
“We’ve noticed with our kids playing tournaments that by the time they get to 10 years old they are already on the back foot in terms of nutrition and conditioning and that kind of thing.
“So how you create Springboks out of this kind of environment is a question that needs to be answered, not at a Springbok level, but at a grassroots level.”