While South Africa’s rugby team has decided not to take a knee before games, former Springbok Bryan Habana says he would have done so if he had the opportunity during his playing days.
Male and female rugby players at club and international level chose to take a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement over the past 18 months, but the gesture has not been adopted unanimously by teams and players across the sport.
The Springboks – world champions in 1995, 2007 and 2019 – are one such example.
Earlier this year, head coach Rassie Erasmus said his side was focused on supporting South Africa Rugby’s own anti-racism and anti-discrimination program, RADAR, rather than taking a knee before games.
“I just don’t think it’s a directive at the moment,” Habana, who made 124 appearances for the Springboks and scored 67 tries, told CNN Sport of the decision not to take a knee.
He added: “All players in that squad have had various statements throughout the course of the last year and a half, and in so doing, hopefully show that rugby is definitely against racism.”
Asked if he would have taken the knee as a player, Habana said: “I think I would, if we were asked to do it or if there was an opportunity to do it.
“We saw with the Autumn Nations Cup last year held in the UK that there was a number of players that would do it, and I would have most certainly done if given the opportunity.”
The act of taking a knee, which was popularized by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016 as a protest against racial injustice and police brutality, has proved a divisive subject when it comes to sport in South Africa.
Last year, South African players for English Premiership side Sale Sharks were the attention of public scrutiny for not taking the knee; like their teammates, they wore T-shirts with the words “Rugby Against Racism” ahead of games.
Then last month, South African cricketer Quinton de Kock apologized for refusing to take the knee at the T20 Cricket World Cup and insisted he is “not a racist.”
Cricket South Africa had previously ordered all players to take a knee before game at the tournament, but wicketkeeper de Kock made the “personal decision” not to.
‘Rugby as a true dream’
The Springboks’ Rugby World Cup triumph two years ago signaled a landmark moment in South Africa’s sporting and social history with Siya Kolisi, the team’s first Black captain, lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy.
It came 24 years after Francois Pienaar had accepted the trophy from Nelson Mandela a year after the end of apartheid – an iconic moment in rugby history.
Habana, who scored a joint-record 15 World Cup tries during his career, has lauded today’s Springboks side as being “truly representative” of South Africa.
“Having our captain [Siya Kolisi] being the first Black African to not only captain and then win a World Cup, to have the likes of [wingers] Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe become the first players to score a try in a Rugby World Cup final for South Africa and really have tangible stories that relate to 60-odd percent of our population that can actually now see rugby as a true dream I think is extremely special,” he said.
Since the World Cup, the Springboks have continued to play with power and precision under Erasmus’ guidance and recently returned to the top of World Rugby’s rankings ahead of New Zealand following victories against Scotland and Wales.
Their style has received some criticism – notably for its emphasis on forward play and set-piece dominance – but the side has demonstrated that it can play attractive rugby, too, most recently as Mapimpi scored two tries by exploiting the wide channels against Scotland on Saturday.
Habana, who retired from rugby in 2018, has no qualms about the way the current South African side plays.
“As a previous player and someone that knows that winning can make or break your career, I think when you play towards your strengths, when you play towards things that make you better and make you win, it’s really important to understand potentially where the criticism comes from,” said Habana, speaking as a Land Rover ambassador during the release of the nominations for the World Rugby awards.
He added: “What we have seen over the course of the last few years, it is extremely effective and successful. I know that the boys will be more concerned about winning than potentially about the style of play. The longer they win for, I think the more enjoyable they will be post the game.”
‘Mouthwatering’ World Cup final repeat
The Springboks’ next game is against England at Twickenham on Saturday – a repeat of the 2019 World Cup final.
And for added intrigue, Erasmus was banned from rugby for two months this week after being found guilty of threatening match officials during this year’s British and Irish Lions tour.
He has also been banned from all match-day activities until September next year and warned about his future conduct. South Africa Rugby has been fined $27,000 (£20,000) over the incident, which saw Erasmus release an hour-long video criticizing the performance of match official Nic Berry.
Heading into Saturday’s game, England is undefeated since March and recorded its eighth consecutive victory against Australia last week, while South Africa is looking to complete a clean sweep in this month’s Autumn Internationals.
“I think, in this England side, they are brimming with confidence,” said Habana.
“If one looks at what happened last weekend against Australia, South Africa will have to be extremely wary in all facets of play if they want to try to replicate what happened in 2019.
“It’s going to make for an absolutely mouthwatering clash … I know many are touting this as the potential final of the Autumn International Series; hopefully, it lives up that tag.”