JOHANNESBURG // South Africa start a home series against England on Saturday with a new coach, new captain and old questions about not doing enough to address the politically sensitive issue of the racial composition of the team.
The Springboks once were the sporting symbols of the white-minority apartheid regime, but Nelson Mandela, the former president, helped turn them into models of racial reconciliation when South Africa hosted, and won, the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Since then, the governing body of South African rugby has made the transformation of the racial composition of its teams a top priority. But the squad selected for the England series by Heyneke Meyer, the new South Africa coach, is overwhelmingly white.
His predecessor, Peter de Villiers, said it should not be this way.
"There are more black players who are capable of playing for South Africa than most people think," De Villiers said in a book released in the past few weeks.
"But before then, many talented young players have fallen through the cracks in the system."
South Africans often speak of a racial divide in sports, with whites playing rugby and blacks playing football. But that breaks down in the southern part of the country where blacks have played rugby for decades and outnumber whites in organised rugby by more than a five to one margin.
Black players from the region face numerous hurdles in climbing the ranks, critics say, due to a lack of sponsorship for black-majority clubs, white coaches who favour white players and resistance from upper levels of rugby for putting blacks on the field.
The South African Rugby Union (SARU) has spent heavily to promote the game among the black majority and develop talent. While critics concede that progress has been made, they say that institutional racism is holding back talented blacks who could boost the overall level of play in the country.
SARU officials were not immediately available for comment.
At the level of the Springboks, about 70 to 80 per cent of their members of the past several years have been white. The team has won two World Cups and been ranked consistently as one of the strongest international sides.
At junior levels, the percentage of non-whites is higher, with the Under 21 team winning two world titles and U19s also taking two.
Blacks make up about 80 per cent of the South Africa population and whites nearly 10 per cent.
De Villiers, the first black coach of the Springboks, said a few rugby officials were angry when he placed nine black players among the starting 15 when he coached South Africa for the U21 championships in 2005.
That team won the world title.
His Springboks team for last year's World Cup was mostly white, with De Villiers saying there were not enough blacks who had risen to be in the talent pool for World Cup rugby.
As with many issues that touch on race in the country still scarred by apartheid, the debate about rugby has been political.
Gwede Mantashe, a former rugby player and now secretary general of the ruling African National Congress, said De Villiers was too timid and SARU too slow in pushing transformation.
"There is progress in terms of the coloured composition. But it is not enough," he said.
"There is not a shortage of talent. There is not a shortage of skill."
WALES EYE VULNERABLE WALLABIES
Wales, the Six Nations champions, sense a prime opportunity to capitalise on the fallable-looking Wallabies in Brisbane on Saturday and win their first international in Australia in 43 years.
The Australians and their coach, Robbie Deans, have been feeling the heat since their try-less 9-6 loss to Scotland in Newcastle on Tuesday.
John Connolly, the former Wallabies coach, raised the spectre of Dean being replaced if Australia lose their three-Test home series to the Welsh.
The contrast is stark. Second-ranked Australia are scrambling to recover some of their credibility, while Wales are fit, confident and in form after storming through this year's Six Nations unbeaten.
Wales have not won in eight Tests in Australia since their only victory, 19-16 in Sydney in 1969, but feel this could be their chance to end their drought.
"This side is playing with confidence and playing good rugby and we're looking forward to it," said Rob Howley, the caretaker coach.
"If you are going to be in World Cup finals and semi-finals we need that southern hemisphere scalp and it's been very pleasing for us that some of our players are saying that and we believe we have that opportunity.
"The next quest is to back up that Six Nations campaign and win away in the southern hemisphere. There's no harder place to play in world rugby."
Howley has the luxury of choosing virtually a full-strength Welsh lineup. Only Jamie Roberts, the dynamic running centre, is missing, through a knee injury.
The Welsh targeted the first Test in the three-match series by sending their first-choice side to Brisbane last week while their second-string side beat the Barbarians 30-21 in Cardiff.
"We don't underestimate Australia," Howley said. "We know their unity and quality of their players. We're very mindful of their psyche, but this side is confident."
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