Only in SA.THE rapturous welcome the All Blacks received at Port Elizabeth airport has reopened the controversy that surrounded the similar support enjoyed by the Crusaders when the Christchurch-based team twice visited Cape Town earlier this year.
The pictures of Port Elizabethans figuratively slitting their throats haka-style in exhibitions of raw passion as their overwhelmed heroes struggled through the arrivals hall to their team bus have prompted questions, mainly from white South Africans, as to why their coloured compatriots, two decades into democracy, still do not support the Springboks.
Old habits die hard is the reflex refrain, but having chatted to locals here and informed colleagues in Cape Town, the answer is more complex and in some ways not as sinister or controversial as many people think. And it includes the community feeling let down by the present-day South African Rugby Union, as well as the bare fact that the All Blacks play great rugby.
Of course there is the political aspect to it, dating back to the horrors initiated by Hendrik Verwoerd in the 60s. Naturally, the disenfranchised would support anyone but the sporting standard-bearers of apartheid, the Springboks, who better than anything reflected the white “elite”.
And blacks would certainly support the one team that gave the then world-beating Boks a hard time on the field, the All Blacks.
Nobody else could come near to rivalling the Boks in the amateur era (pre 1995).
And the young South Africans who hated the Boks in those days are now grandfathers, and the passion they had for the Kiwis has been passed on through generations and, if anything, has grown stronger.
Cory Jane, the All Blacks winger, described the airport reception thus: “It was crazy, but very cool. The channel that we were walking through got tighter and tighter as we got closer to the bus and people were trying to reach out and touch you.
“It was very special. It was very humbling to see what the black jersey means to them, and the way they were chanting ‘All Blacks, All Blacks’ was goose-bump stuff.”
But the political history is only part of it. The chairman of the Eastern Cape All Blacks supporters club, which has 3 000 registered members and plenty more unofficial members, is one Danville Felkers, and he sheds some interesting light.
“I was born into supporting the All Blacks. My father, grandfather and uncles are very passionate supporters, and it is very easy for new generations to continue this tradition because the All Blacks are a brilliant rugby team.
“They are the Manchester United of rugby. They win consistently and they win in style. People love winners.”
And older members of the Port Elizabeth community are in no hurry to convert their children to the green and gold because they feel that they have been left stranded by empty promises from the game’s governing body.
“Rugby has died in the schools of the (poor) northern suburbs,” Felkers says.
“And we have played rugby in this region forever. But we have no facilities. There has been no investment from Saru, no upliftment, and we feel let down.”
Once more, in a brand new era, resentment of Saru has been channelled into supporting the Springboks’ opposition.
“We have kids who want to play rugby but their parents cannot afford to send them to (white) schools such as Grey High. Those who stick it out have to come to our clubs,” he says.
“In our suburbs we are crying out for sport to give our teenagers something to do to keep them away from drugs and crime. Rugby can do that, but it hasn’t because the system has let us down.”
Saru’s flagship investment in the Eastern Cape is, of course, the Southern Kings, and bully to them for resurrecting top-flight rugby in the region, but for the less affluent rugby man on the ground this means diddly squat.
It is a (potential) success story at the pinnacle of the rugby pyramid, but what about at the broad base?
“Nothing has changed at grass roots,” says Felkers. “We don’t feel that Saru is engaging us. We don’t feel any affinity to Saru. We remain forgotten.”
And all the while the All Blacks play exciting, invigorating rugby, and their fan base in South African grows by the day.