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 Friday, 10 January, 2003, 10:36 GMT
Breaking down the barriers
Errol Tobias
Tobias toured Britain with the Barbarians in 1983

In the latest of BBC Sport Online's rugby legends series, Errol Tobias, the first non-white man to play for the Springboks, talks about breaking down South Africa's racial barriers.


It would be fair to say that most players with six international caps to their name will not expect to gain the accolade of 'legend'.

Nor will many rugby fans have heard of Errol Tobias, a wily fly-half whose quick hands and electric pace caught the eye of the Springbok selectors in 1979.


But as he ran out in the green and gold of South Africa on his international debut in 1981, Tobias had already achieved more than most players can dream about.

For he was the first non-white player in the history of the Springboks to win a cap.

In apartheid South Africa, white and black people used different pavements, pitches and shops.

Quite simply, the move by national coach Nellie Schmidt to invite Tobias into the squad was revolutionary.

But, as Errol recalls, while Schmidt was happy to accommodate a player of his natural talent, others were not.

They saw the rugby I played was of a high quality and they respected me for that

Errol Tobias
"Of course there were people who thought that a black man should not be playing for the Springboks," Tobias said.

"I knew there were people who were saying that, but I decided that I was going to show South African people that all men are born equal.

"I wanted to show them that colour doesn't matter - if you have got the skills then you should play for your country."

It wasn't just sections of the white community who opposed his selection.

Parts of Tobias' Township in Caledon felt he should not turn out for a sport so associated with the apartheid regime.

"Some people reacted furiously to my selection," he said.

"They felt that the apartheid laws should be removed before I played for South Africa, but from a sports point of view - I was no politician.

"We had no say in politics, we didn't even have a vote, so all I knew at that stage was to play rugby.

"My goal was 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."

While South African rugby now has one governing body - SARFU - in the days of apartheid it boasted four - based on racial lines.

Each body fielded an international team, with the South African Leopards, an African outfit run by SARA, facing the British Lions on their 1974 tour.

Tobias's governing body, SARFF, had their own competitions, and thus when the 31-year-old fly-half was invited to join the squad by Schmidt, he was walking into the unknown.

"I have to admit that at the beginning of the tour to New Zealand in 1981 the atmosphere was very tense," he said.

"But as the tour progressed we started to talk to one another.

The four unions in 1981
SARFB - White players
SARU - Non racial mixed
SARA - Black African
SARFF - Coloured players
"And I remember one of the white players said to me: 'Errol, the strangest thing is happening here, you don't even look as black as you did when you started in this group'.

"They saw the rugby I played was of a high quality and they respected me for that."

Tobias's six caps blew apart the consensus that black people couldn't play rugby, and laid the foundations for the likes of Chester Williams to wear the Springbok jersey.

And while racial segregation and persecution continued for a good ten years after his debut, his appearence in the green and gold played a part in broadening the horizons of the rugby public.

Granted, it wasn't the most auspicious of international careers, but Tobias' struggle was off the pitch.

Playing rugby was the easy bit.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
 First Springbok cap
"There were people who objected to me"
 Team-mate's welcome
"It was a tense atmosphere at first"

Rugby heroes
See also:

01 Nov 02 | International
17 Jun 02 | Africa
Links to more International stories are at the foot of the page.


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