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Gallagher column: Hero pathfinders fought the cause of black players in Apartheid-era South Africa

By Brendan Gallagher

BACK in 2009 just before the Lions left for South Africa I was talking to Morgan Cushe who, in another era, another world, might have been the first black rugby player to represent South Africa.

After a while he started to lament the fact that he had lost – or rather a friend had failed to return – his solitary copy of John Reason’s 1974 book The Unbeaten Lions which devoted a chapter to the ‘all black’ XV against the tourists entitled Morgan Cushe and the Leopards.

Cushe, a dynamic former boxer turned flanker, shone brightly in adversity that afternoon in East London when the Lions crushed their opponents 58-10. Without him the score might have crept up towards the century.

Originally named Eric when he was born in 1948, Cushe’s rugby loving father rechristened him Morgan after the visit of the 1955 Lions in which Cliff Morgan played such a prominent role.

Within a week of mentioning this in print I had been offered 20 copies of the book – many signed by various Lions and clearly the proud possession of their owners – to take down to South Africa. I chose the most pristine and tracked Cushe down before the first Test. He embraced it like a long lost friend and quickly turned to the chapter and then to page 174, pointing to the bottom paragraph:

“But it was the performance of Morgan Cushe on the flank that was most significant. It was a complete vindication of the Four Home Unions decision that the Lions should play the coloureds and Africans for the first time, these two communities had produced a rugby player clearly good enough to be considered for one of the flank positions if South Africa were to hold mixed trials.”

For Cushe that paragraph, despite what we would now consider its condescending tone,  had offered concrete evidence that could be re-read in time of personal doubt and despair over the decades that followed.  He was born at the wrong time, wrong place but he was once a player to reckon with. He could have been a Springbok, he could have been contender.

He died four years later.

New era: Siya Kolisi has been appointed the first black Springboks captain 24 years on from the end of Apartheid (photo: Getty Images)

That unexpectedly emotional encounter came to mind again early last week when another flanker from the Eastern Cape, Siya Kolisi, was appointed captain of the Springboks, the first black South African to skipper South Africa, an historic if long overdue moment.

What is it about fiery flankers from the Eastern Cape by the way? Anti-apartheid activist and freedom fighter Steve Biko, right, was a very useful wing forward as well as playing for the Sea Lions club his brother Khaya founded.

Kolisi,  a very tough but classy forward, is the new standard bearer for South African rugby and his appointment is a huge fillip to the process of securing some kind of racial equality in the make-up of South African rugby, but he would be first to pay tribute to those who blazed a trail before him.

Cushe was first and foremost among those but there were others from that era who we should acknowledge. A year after the Lions game,  Cushe was one of four players of colour – the others were John Noble, Turkey Shields and Toto Tsotsobe – who played for the South Africa Invitation XV which beat France 18-3 at Newlands.

The following year Cushe was again playing for the Invitation side when they ran the All Blacks close, losing 31-24 at Newlands. And he lined up against the tourists a second time later that summer when his all-black Leopards side lost 31-0 at a game held in the township of Mdantsane.

Following behind those pathfinders came the first black South African to win a full cap – Errol Tobias – a ball of energy at fly-half and centre who finally broke through all the barriers to be capped at the age of 31.

Ball of energy: Errol Tobias playing in 1975 for the Leopards

Tobias had been a stand-out player for a decade having been a star turn ten years earlier for the Protea when they toured Britain – the Proteas was an affiliation that represented all the segregated unions in South Africa, i.e all the players of colour.

When he was finally capped, Tobias was unbeaten in the six internationals he played during which South Africa played with unusual fluency and scored 18 tries. Having made his debut in the series against Ireland in 1981 he toured New Zealand that controversial summer –  missing out on selection – but returned to help inspire the rout of England in 1984.  He signed off with two more impressive performances opposite Hugo Porta when the Boks played a South America XV later that summer.

You might have assumed that Tobias was a hero for the black community at the time and indeed he was for many, but there were also those who criticised him for ‘selling out’ or insisted that his selection was mere tokenism and that he was used for PR purposes.

Nothing could be further from the truth, he was selected – belatedly – totally on merit as his performances even in the twilight of his career demonstrated and his elevation spelled out a strong subliminal message. If he could play for the Springboks, then there was no reason why repressed South Africans of colour could not one day govern their own country.

“We had no say in politics. We didn’t even have a vote, so all I knew at that stage was to play rugby,” recalled Tobias. “My goal was simply to show the country and the rest of the world that we had black players who were equally as good, if not better, than the whites, and that if you are good enough you should play.”

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