Black pearl of the high veldt

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RACE and rugby are twin bedfellows in South Africa; a marriage of inconvenience with both parties desperate for a divorce, a weekend apart, different bedrooms even though none of these outcomes are realistic in the foreseeable future.

Like it or not, and most South Africans appear resigned to the matter, the two issues were conjoined at the second birth of the nation, back in 1994 when the free elections ended the era of white minority rule.

It is because of race and rugby's long-term pas de deux that Errol Tobias is an icon of the game, every bit as much a symbol of South African rugby as the Afrikaner Francois Pienaar. Fourteen years before the Springboks skipper famously accepted the Williams Webb Ellis Cup from Nelson Mandela, with the one-time "terrorist" sporting his own No.6 Springboks' jersey, Tobias was making history of his own.

On May 30, 1981, at Newlands in Cape Town, the classy fly-half became the first non-white man to pull on the green and gold Springboks jersey that had, at least up to that point in history, been such a potent symbol of the apartheid regime. Tobias won another five caps although it would surely have been a whole heap more but for the world-wide sports boycott in place against South Africa and the fact that the player was aged 31 before Dr Danie Craven thought it expedient to add a little colour to the Springboks' traditional Aryan line-up.

"I got a phone call from Dr Craven telling me that I had been elected. In those days you were 'elected' to the Springboks. He said good luck to me and told me to come and see him the next day," says Tobias with the memory still fresh. "It wasn't a total surprise because I had been building towards it. I had a feeling in my heart that I might make it. It was all my dreams come true, a big Christmas present."

The selection of a black man for the Springboks back in the early 1980's had a strangely unifying effect, making unwitting bedfellows of extremists on both sides of the racial divide. The poor player was denounced by many of his own countrymen who felt that he had somehow lent legitimacy to the whole apartheid edifice.

Meanwhile, the right wing of the Afrikaner movement were furious. They might not have known it but they had just witnessed a first crack in apartheid's facade that would crumble in spectacular fashion, although not for another decade. At the time the country boasted four separate rugby unions, one for whites, one for blacks, one for coloured players and the other, one can only presume, for those players who didn't fit into any of the above categories. The Afrikaners and elements within the ANC both wanted Tobias playing for the coloured union.

"It was only the politicians that complained and not the rugby players," says the man who was at the centre of the storm. "I was elected purely on the standard of my play and not on colour. When we played against the South Americans I ran [Argentine fly-half] Hugo Porta to shreds and he was acknowledged to be the best in the world.

"He told me afterwards that I was the best running fly-half, not just in South Africa, but in world rugby. Afrikaners used to come up to me and tell me that I was better than Naas [Botha]. He was the best white fly-half and I was the best South African fly-half. I feel like I opened a door for my people."

Tobias is a gregarious type, happy to proclaim his brilliance with the ball in hand to anyone who has not been blessed with the video evidence, but given the barriers that stood between him and national selection at the time it is hardly surprising to find that the black man who forged a lonely path to the top of South African rugby is not the shy and retiring type. Any other attitude probably would have seen him overlooked at a time when the national selectors hardly needed another excuse in addition to the colour of his skin.

More surprising is Tobias' frank admission that he almost moved country in search of international recognition, with France offering a haven at a time when passports were available on the nod and wink from the right quarters.

"My selection [for the Springboks] justified my decision not to go to France," says the former playmaker who undoubtedly had the flair of the French in his veins even if the blood was all African. "Albert Ferrasse [the then president of the FFR] had asked me to move and play for France, in those days it was much easier than it is now, but it was my mother who stopped me. She told me that I was good enough to play for the Springboks so she didn't want me running away but to stay and play for my home country. Sadly, the Lord took her three months before I was capped so she didn't ever see me play."

Twenty-five years on from this bold step and race is as much a part of rugby as it ever was. The president of the South African Rugby Union, Oregon Hoskins, was recently stood in front of a parliamentary committee and required to justify Jake White's squad selection. Hoskins insisted that the quota system no longer prevails at national level, "because it is not needed" but still the president was asked to account for the absence of either of the Ndungane twins, two exciting wingers, and a host of other non-white players.

But this is South Africa, so nothing is ever simple. Hoskins also found himself in the uncomfortable position of defending a black players' selection over a white one when the politicians demanded to know why flanker Solly Tyibilika had been picked for White's training squad ahead of Western's Province's new captain Luke Watson.

Watson is the son of Cheeky Watson, another famous figure in the fight against apartheid. A staunch Christian, Cheeky Watson is generally recognised to have forfeited a Springbok cap when he and Valence, two of four brothers, took the unprecedented step of abandoning their province in order to play rugby for an all-black township team in protest at the apartheid system.

The move created almost as much mayhem as Tobias' election to the Springboks. The ANC politicians made it clear to Hoskins that they suspected Watson Jnr was being punished for his father's role in what is refereed to as "struggle rugby" and even Tobias suspects that there is something between Jake White and the Watsons that we don't know about. After his playing career, Tobias did some coaching at his home town of Boland but he has since moved on and now fronts Supersports' television coverage, offering his expert analysis.

He also spends an inordinate amount of time talking up his two sons, the younger one named after a famous All Black scrum-half, Sydney Tobias, and the older one named after someone even more famous, Errol Tobias. Former Springboks' flanker Rob Lowe is godfather to Errol Jnr and there are persistent rumours that the teak-tough breakaway played a similar guardian's role for his black playmaker when the fly-half needed protection from some of his less enlightened team mates.

"No no, not at all," Tobias demurs. "These are really wicked lies. I had no trouble with the other guys in the squad and I have remained friendly with all of them. If there was any segregation it was along provincial lines, you know the Western Province guys would stick together and those from Orange Free State would have a clique. It is probably no different now."

"You must remember that when I was capped I was not some kid from the sewer," he continues, "but a respected contractor. At the time I was building two, three, ten-million rand houses so I was used to dealing with white guys, architects and all the rest. If there was any small niggling stuff within the squad I'd address that and set it straight immediately. I won the players' respect because I was clearly a team man through and through. I was measured as a rugby player rather than as a black man."

Tobias insists that if he ever gets around to writing the autobiography that has been bubbling under for some time it would shun the settling of any old scores and instead concentrate on the lost arts of the game that he did so much to promote. "Hand-offs, speed, sidesteps, body swerves" - all the attributes that made him such a favourite - "they have all been coached out of the players, they are truly the forgotten arts of the game."

Like the best journalists, Tobias is not short of opinions. He calls Super 14 rugby "a rat race" and he wants a return to Springbok trials. He thinks quotas are unnecessary but is hugely critical of the lack of structures to promote black talent naturally. Moreover, he believes that this generation of black players doesn't do enough to encourage their younger brothers into the game. He points out that in 1984 he and Avril Williams were the only two black men in the Springboks' starting line up that played England.

Fast forward to November, 2005 when the Boks played their last Test match against France and there were exactly two non-white players in the South African starting XV, Breyton Paulse and Bryan Habana; so much for progress.

Despite this evidence, the man who made history remains upbeat about his country's future both in terms of race and rugby. The re-distribution of wealth is helping the country's poorest to put food on their plates while South African rugby has the benefit of not one but two young Tobias kids coming through the system.

Errol Jnr shares not only his father's name but also his position while his younger brother Sydney is a hooker. Both boys are having trials for provincial age-group rugby and an understandably proud father is as happy to boast about them as he is to talk about himself.

"I tell you this not because I am their father," argues Tobias with all the conviction he can muster. "But the boys are really good rugby players. They have hands and speed and they are nothing to do with the milkman. These two lads are definitely mine."