South Africa: Is rugby union running scared of league?
Rugby league actually has something of a history in South Africa. Like league everywhere, it has also survived and continued to be played there, despite having to undergo an almost continual existential struggle.
Names such as Len Killeen, Jan Prinsloo and Tom Van Vollenhoven, as well as Dave Barends and Green Vigo, will be familiar to certain generations of UK rugby league fans.
Now a referee, Jamie Bloem also continues to keep the RSA flag flying in UK rugby league.
But there could be so many more of them, if the rugby talent in the country had access to a properly supported and funded rugby league structure.
That the sport in South Africa currently continues to be marginalised and oppressed seems almost an anchronism, until you tie it in with an ongoing pattern that includes Morocco and the UAE, and possibly even Italy.
For those who do not know what has been occurring in South Africa over the last few years, it seems as though certain elements within South African sport do not want to see a viable rugby league structure in the country.
The reasons for this seem to begin with money, but they may go deeper than that. As SARL chairman Kobus Botha explained, one real obstacle for the growth of the sport in the republic is that they currently do not yet have South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASOC) recognition.
SASOC will not accept that rugby league is a different sport to union, which closes off access to funding, sponsorship and even official international recognition for league players.
“One of our main goals is to get recognition with SASCOC and the government to be able to present our national team, the Rhinos, with the recognition they deserve,” Botha to rugby league.
“The colours presented to them at this stage are not recognized by the government or for that matter SASCOC.
“Without the recognition of SASCOC we can not apply for any state funding or any other funding from even the private sector. The reason? Because we are not a recognized sport.
“Our Minister of sport, Fikele Majola, sent out a press release the previous week that no sport in South Africa will get government funding if they do not comply with the new Transformation Act [legislation designed to improve racial equality in South Africa].
“We find this very interesting. Rugby league is a sport that has been focusing on the African Townships in South Africa.
“We are attempting to take the Sport to the Townships where we can provide a healthy sport programme for the youngsters to participate in, rather than joining gangs and using drugs.
“Presently we have three African teams in three black Townships. Unfortunately they cannot compete in our local competitions due to the lack of funding.
“We have rugby league clinics in the disadvantaged schools in the Black Townships on a regular basis but unfortunately this is where it ends due to lack of funding.”
One particular frustration for Botha is that the social and community aspirations of rugby league are also being frustrated by the lack of recognition.
“We started with a ‘One Community Project’ in schools, which is an NRL project, where we visit black schools and teach them the basics – hygiene, how to react towards bullies, how to stay drug free et, with great success.
“This has been endorsed with great enthusiasm by the education departments where this was rolled out. Once again because the roll-out was self funded we could not continue with the programme.
“Without government and SASCOC recognition rugby league is not allowed to be played at school level.
“This in itself is a huge problem for SARL. The government want transformation in sports but they are not willing to accept and fund a sport that can really do something in regard to transformation.
“Rugby union has a very tight, strong hold over the media. Due to us not being recognised we get no media support from the media or television.”
The reasons for rugby league not being recognised seem opaque at best, and downright idiotic and bigoted at worst.
This is despite correspondence, seen by Love Rugby League, from World Rugby (rugby union’s world governing body) which confirms to the South African authorities that league is a different sport, with a distinct history and governing bodies from union.
“SASCOC is adamant that rugby league cannot be recognized as a sport by them due to the fact that their constitution states that they can only recognize one code and not different codes under the same structure,” Botha explained.
“For example, all other rugby codes like Sevens, wheelchair, women’s rugby, even Australian Rules, must fall under and be governed by SARU.
“We find this strange as SASCOC recognizes Karate as a code and Judo as a different code, yet they are both martial arts.”
Rugby league finding recognition in South Africa is not a new problem, however, with discrimination dating back to the 1960s.
“Our plight with the recognition of rugby league started in the early 60s,” Botha explained.
“In 1963 the first rugby league team, consisting of former Springboks and other Union players, went on tour and participated in the Rugby League World Cup.
“They where the first ever South African team that had an African player in their team.
“On their return they where told by the then president of the South African Rugby Union, Dr Danie Craven, that if any union player ever touched a rugby league ball they would be banned from playing Rugby Union.
“This resulted in rugby league being banned until 1994. Since 1994, when we where allowed to play rugby league in South Africa, it has been an ongoing struggle to get SASCOC recognition.”
Love Rugby League has also seen correspondance from South African rugby union authorities to the SARL that reveal a concern about competing with league for state funding, particularly from the National Lottery in South Africa.
The line from SARU is that they would be competing with league for a share of a small cake in regard to state funding.
One has to ask why union is in need of state funding in a country where it is often treated as a national sport? If South African rugby union and the Springboks are as mighty as their backers make them out to be, why do they need this additional funding?
Botha confirmed that the issue seems to be with local authorities in South Africa, rather than World Rugby, which has been broadly supportive of their cause.
“We have presented SASCOC with letters from World Rugby and Mr Jurie Roux, the CEO of SARU. that clearly state that rugby league is a completely different code, but without any success,” he said.
“They will allow us to participate and be recognised under the auspice of rugby union. This is not what we want.
“We must to be recognised as a different code.
“Why we are not recognised we can only be ponder upon. Rugby union is afraid of rugby league.
“There are thousands of union players that get no recognition from union and they would love to join the ranks of RL, as soon as we are accredited, where they will have the opportunity to get recognition on a Provincial and National level.
“Rugby league will eventually outgrow union and that is one of the reasons for not accepting us.
“Further to this I have a letter from Mr Oregon Hoskins, President of SARU, that clearly states that if we should get recognition we will have access to government and Lotto funding and he (Hoskins) feels that we will be entitled to funding that is actually being given to rugby union. (Love Rugby League has seen this letter).
“We must keep in mind that Mr Tubby Reding, President of SASCOC, comes out of the rugby union ranks and will do everything in his power to protect rugby union.”
For Botha, the case for the SARL is clear, but he is also sure that they can only eventually win their fight for official recognition with more support from the global rugby league community.
“Your on going support for SARL from the league communities and media gives us the strive to keep on fighting for our rights in South Africa,” he said.
“The more media exposure we get the greater the chances of someone opening the eyes of SASCOC. As you are aware it is very unlikely that we will get local or government funding while not recognised as a sport.
“We have had international companies showing interest in supporting us financially but unfortunately nothing has come of this up to now.”
Meanwhile, the Rhinos continue to plan international fixtures, despite their travails. They hope, one day, to be playing regular fixtures against other African, Middle Eastern and Pacific teams.
“We are planing to host a Tri Nations competition in South Africa between Lebanon and Niue in October,” Botha confirmed.
“The challenge for us is that all our tours are self-funded and we are attempting to raise enough funds to cover the ground costs for the tour.
“This would have been a showcase event for the Government and SASCOC, were we accepted.
“The sad reality is that this competition might not take place.
“We had a invitation from Ghana to send a team to play a match there but unfortunately due to the lack of funding we had to cancel.
“We are attempting to get sponsors for our sport and yes it would be great to be able to compete against our neighboring countries.
“We have had the privilege to host World Cup Qualifiers in South Africa. Although the Rhinos did not qualify it was great experience for us.
“Sadly we once again had no media coverage. Lebanon and SARL are currently looking at starting a MEAC (Middle East African Confederation ) that will enable us to participate in a African International Competition.”
Botha, despite the problems, remains optimistic about the future, with some talented players in the rugby league system in South Africa.
The prospect of bringing NRL or Super League clubs to South Africa to play a fixture, perhaps a World Club Challenge game, is also something which appeals.
“We have currently two Rhino players in Australia playing club rugby there,” said Botha.
“We have a considerable amount of potential players that would definitely qualify to play for international clubs.
“I think it would be unfair to the players to mention names. But be sure we have a lot of talent.
“A World Club Challenge game would be tremendous.
“As I mentioned we do get a number of international teams playing in SA on a yearly bassis and as mentioned we had a World Cup Qualifier games in SA.
“South Africa Rugby League has a lot of challenges but be sure we will overcome. The proverbial sleeping giant will rise in South Africa.
“I would like to thank the International Rugby League community for their ongoing support. It means a a lot to us.”
So, what does rugby union in South Africa have to lose? What are the reasons for this ridiculous lack of recognition from SASOC, when even the IRB is telling them the truth?
One day, we might find out. Until then, we should back the SARL to the hilt, as they try a develop a new frontier for rugby league, and tap into a potentially huge pool of talent.