EXTRACT

That stunned me. I couldn’t believe that Willemse was ever labelled a quota player. He was a heck of a wing, and at his zenith he was one of the most deserving recipients of the Springbok jersey.

He had the misfortune of being part of the country’s worst-yet World Cup squad in 2003, but it says something that he was one of only two backline players (along with Jaque Fourie) to survive to the next tournament, which South Africa won.

Ashwin Willemse. Picture: GALLO IMAGES
Ashwin Willemse. Picture: GALLO IMAGES

What struck me most about Ashwin Willemse walking out of the SuperSport studio mid-broadcast on Saturday night was his one comment referring to his own playing days.

“I’ve played this game for a long time, like all of us here, you know. And as a player I was labelled a quota player for a long time ... and I’ve worked hard to earn my own respect in this game.” 

That stunned me. I couldn’t believe that Willemse was ever labelled a quota player. He was a heck of a wing, and at his zenith he was one of the most deserving recipients of the Springbok jersey. 

He had the misfortune of being part of the country’s worst-yet World Cup squad in 2003, but it says something that he was one of only two backline players (along with Jaque Fourie) to survive to the next tournament, which South Africa won. 

In 2003, Willemse was a rare beacon, a lighthouse in arguably the dullest backline to wear the green and gold. 

At the time I remember wondering how South African rugby had regressed from imaginative players like Danie Gerber, Peter Whipp, Carel du Plessis, Johan Heunis, Errol Tobias, Michael du Plessis, Ray Mordt and even Naas Botha to a herd of (white) cart-horses. 

I wasn’t the only one impressed by Willemse; he walked away with a few top awards in SA that year. 

Willemse a quota player? A player who didn’t belong in a Springbok jersey? Get off the grass. 

How many fans remember the outcry when Stefan Terblanche was dropped for Breyton Paulse in the late 1990s, presumably another quota selection?
That happened during Nick Mallett’s tenure as Springbok coach, by the way. 

In my humble opinion, Paulse was the better player by quite some margin.

So these people who call Willemse and Paulse quota players, do they also believe that when players of colour perform poorly it’s because they are players of colour? 

If so, I’d like to know what’s the reason when white players perform poorly? 

It’s a fact that rugby has not transformed properly, and a large part of the problem is that this sport seems to be the last bastion of white South African supremacy.

A few years back I watched an under-15 school match between a mostly white team against a completely black team. 

Before the match even kicked off the white parents were accusing the black kids of being age cheats.

Even so, the predominantly white team’s scrum dominated possession, but their backline couldn’t string more than two passes together. 

The black team’s backline, on the other hand, had better skills and they scored tries the few times they got the ball (they were also aided by some sloppy tackling). 

The parents of the predominantly white team walked away thinking their kids lost because they were cheated, because that was the only way their narrow minds could compute this defeat to players they clearly considered to be genetically inferior. 

This type of attitude is bad enough, but then you still get the disgusting overt racism as allegedly committed by a Roodepoort under-21 team against Wanderers, where at least one white born-free used the k-word!

Racism is alive and well in South Africa and South African rugby, but judging from some comments on Twitter, Willemse was simply being too sensitive. 

Patronising

And then there was Willemse’s next comment, which was personally painful to me.

“So I’m not going to be patronised by two individuals that have played in apartheid, segregated era and come and want to undermine [other people].”

He was referring to his fellow analysts Nick Mallett and Naas Botha. 

Mallett was one of my heroes growing up; from 1982 to 1985 he played for my club Villagers, the team I supported above all others, including Western Province and the Springboks. I can describe the tries that he scored and the try-saving tackles he pulled off. 

Before then Mallett had played for UCT, my second-favourite team in the WP league, and Oxford. 
He should be politically enlightened. If it turns out that Mallett was indeed patronising towards Willemse, that is indefensible. 

The same is true of Botha. 

The Willemse issue cannot be allowed to end with the internal investigation into what happened in the studio. 

There’s a far wider problem in rugby and we need to stop ignoring that.​

This article was first published by Times Select


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