Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A winning brand is everything

Over the past week we have been treated to a national outpouring of pride as the world champion Springboks have paraded the Webb Ellis Cup around South Africa. Today Cape Town is the last stop.

Politicians have been quick to piggyback on success, but it's understandable. Winning the World Cup is good for a country.

You can't begrudge President Thabo Mbeki donning a Springbok jersey, launching a million camera flashbulbs as he supports the Class of 2007.

Of course, politicians routinely remind us of rugby's duties to society. While we celebrate victory, a sporting miracle when you consider all the outside factors at play, we are told of the responsibility to transform the game.

One black player in the starting XV in the 1995 World Cup winners, two in 2007. At that rate we would only field an all-black champion Springbok XV in 156 years.

So, you can see where the transformers are coming from, but the Bok bus is not a vehicle fitted with "L" plates, it's the F1 of the sport. Testing of talent has to be done at the structures below.

However, amid all the comments attributed to the politicians, who say we "mustn't make the same mistakes as the last time (1995)", let's just cast our minds back to 12 years ago and where we were in our sport.

Was winning the Rugby World Cup a mistake? It created such a positive domino effect on other codes. Which is also why we should not tinker with a winning brand. And the Springbok is just that, in name and performance.

It's reason number 967 why merit must be the only selection criteria at the elite level of sport. You want the best 15 Springboks taking on the All Blacks in a World Cup final; anything less and you're on a hiding to nothing.

But back to 1995 and the feel-good effect. In the months after Francois Pienaar lifted the trophy and thanked "43 million South Africans" an inspired Bafana Bafana won the African Cup of Nations.

What some might have forgotten is that Bafana Bafana were officially named Fifa's best movers of the year and reached the dizzy heights of 19th in the world. Yes, 19th. Today they're in 83rd place, and 17th in Africa. Those stats are worth reading again.

Why has our national football team slipped so alarmingly? The same politicians who are banging on about transformation in rugby should be pointing their cannons at soccer and asking why it has failed South Africans. The Bafana brand is so low they want to change its name.

Then again, rugby is a soft target. They argue the Boks don't reflect the demographics of the country. But which national team does?

With 2010 looming the politicians should be asking why soccer, by far the most funded in the country, and with the richest administrators, has slipped so much.

Think post-1995 too and the effect it had on our Olympians. In her autobiography Penny Heyns talked about the Boks and she's not even a big rugby fan.

But in the months that the Boks ruled the world, and Bafana Bafana were at their peak, she broke the world breaststroke record and then won two golds at the 1996 Olympics. And marathoner Josiah Thugwane won men's marathon gold too. A winning spirit is infectious.

The Boks have allowed us to dream again. The next African Cup of Nations and the Olympics are next year.

Thanks to John Smit, Jake White and others on the Bok bus, our other sporting talent believes. To dismantle these winners now when they are approaching their peak would not just be a disservice to rugby's world champions.

It would also be a disservice to all those other codes and individuals aspiring to be the best.

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