Rob Houwing – Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The fulsome involvement of players of colour in mastermind Rassie Erasmus’s plans formed an integral part of the Springboks’ surge to World Cup glory in 2019.
It was genuinely a “people’s triumph” for the once statutorily divided country, with the Boks way more representative than they had been in earlier Webb Ellis Cup successes of 1995 and 2007.
But if there were any fears that the phenomenon would lose some impetus in South Africa as a new season kicked in recently, the Sharks have instead been stirring torch-bearers just one notch down, in still important Super Rugby.
Generally, other local franchises have at very least been playing ball with transformation requirements during early 2020 activity, too, but the situation in the Sharks camp is arguably the most constructively noticeable at this point.
While the Stormers are also making decent headway in the results column – and a point ahead of their coastal rivals after two rounds – the similarly unbeaten Sharks have been turning heads not only for the easy-on-the-eye nature of their rugby but for their emphasis on black players leading the charge.
Just for one thing, there is a certain symbolism to the fact that all but five of the franchise’s 65 points thus far – encompassing a 23-15 home victory over the Bulls and memorable 42-20 away grilling of the Highlanders – have come from players of colour.
While hardly a be-all and end-all sort of yardstick (rugby is a team game, and the Sharks are currently shining as a multicultural collective) the statistic is not without some relevance: six of the seven tries on their books thus far have gone to Makazole Mapimpi (2), Aphelele Fassi (2), S’bu Nkosi and Sanele Nohamba – the lone exception is James Venter’s in Dunedin.
Meanwhile Curwin Bosch, another player from a previously disadvantaged background, has been banging over his place-kicks, whether conversions or penalties, with clinical efficiency: 12 out of 13 for a total of 30 points.
Has it perhaps gone unnoticed, too, that the Sharks – for two fixtures on the trot – have achieved the landmark of fielding start-out XVs made up by a majority (eight) of players of colour, or 53.33 percent?
While open to correction, and keeping in mind that the Stormers have already registered that achievement, this is probably the first time it has occurred for the KwaZulu-Natalians in Super Rugby.
The vast nucleus of the players in question, too, have been instrumental in carrying out, with some aplomb, the increasingly evident objective of the Sharks perking up their attacking play after many years (a couple of decades, even) saddled with a reputation primarily as rugged “bashers” of Super Rugby.
Although five players of colour have made up their punch-laden starting backline recently – and Nohamba already a renowned “bomb-squader” off the bench who will push ever more assertively to start at scrumhalf – the three black members of the pack are renowned skills factors as well.
Sikhumbuzo Notshe, since his off-season switch from Newlands, may finally be delivering on his huge potential as a roaming, hot-stepping loose forward, lock Hyron Andrews has a lean build that naturally aids mobility requirements, and Ox Nche – while perhaps still a little rough-edged in scrumming terms – is one of the most active loose-head props in general play that you will find in the competition.
The combination of an upped tally of poster figures from previously disadvantaged communities and the new, more adventure-laden game-plan by coach Sean Everitt and company, should gradually bear some fruit in the Sharks’ quest to not only get a formerly staunch chunk of their faithful back to Kings Park, but also lure in people perhaps not automatically seduced by rugby before.
A fairly pronounced, upward trajectory in terms of making their team more representative is virtually impossible to dispute if you do a comparative study with the last two seasons.
When the Sharks played their last match of 2019 – the surrendered quarter-final against the Brumbies in Canberra – their starting line-up had six players of colour, or 40 percent (Mzamo Majola, Andrews, Mapimpi, Lukhanyo Am, Nkosi and Bosch), while the closing fixture of 2018 saw them field four, or 26.66 percent (Lwazi Mvovo, Am, Nkosi and Bosch).
Progress? Unmistakable …
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