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Why is South Africa afraid of rugby league?

The Springboks are conceding too many historic losses. (David Davies/PA Wire)
Roar Guru
1st May, 2016
236
6862 Reads

Recently an article by journalist Antoinette Muller was brought to my attention in which she detailed the plight of rugby league and the difficulty it is having gaining recognition by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASOC).

It’s a fascinating piece which highlights just how much trouble rugby league has had in South Africa getting the most basic of acceptance at an institutional level.

Muller explains SASOC effectively acts as a conduit between government and major sporting bodies to organise and coordinate funding and also collaborate and prepare for major events like the Olympics. Supposedly their upper management is populated by some fairly prominent former SARU types who have steadfastly refused to recognise rugby league as being distinct from rugby union.

SASOC recognition turns out to be pretty important, as without it a sporting body isn’t eligible for financial assistance from the government, has difficulty using public facilities and can’t be played in the school system. In addition to that, not having recognition also makes corporate support hard to come by.

According to Muller, the crux of the issue is that SASOC refuses to accept rugby league is sufficiently different to rugby union to warrant having its own recognition. This is apparently because, in the SASOC constitution, they explicitly state they will “not recognise more than one National Sport Federation of a similar or same sport type.”

The problem is they apparently routinely do, with sports like field and ice hockey granted separate recognition despite the sports having a similar number of differentiating factors as league and union.

Apparently the South African Rugby League (SARL) have previously even gone as far as requesting the IRB present SASOC with a letter confirming the two sports are, in fact, very different, and are governed by different institutions both internationally and within countries where the two sports are present.

This has had little effect though, with SASOC continuing to insist that the SARL cannot be considered a sport in its own right.

Muller suggests this is because the head honchos at the SARU and SASOC see rugby league as some sort of threat to the position of rugby union in South Africa; that if they were to give South Africans the access and opportunity to play and watch rugby league, they’d fundamentally weaken South African rugby.

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As an Australian who follows both Rugby codes equally and knows his fair share of South Africans, I have to say that, while the evidence Muller presents certainly indicates such fears may exist, I still find it hard to believe.

Rugby union is such an institutional and cultural behemoth in South Africa that the idea it will suddenly lose swathes of support and potential players to rugby league just seems ludicrous.

What do the South Africans who frequent this board think? Why the petty-minded intransigence from SASOC?

Is rugby in South Africa truly so weak and insecure that they can’t risk losing an inch to rugby league?