Who Was the First Black Player in South Africa Rugby?

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South Africa is one of the best countries in rugby in Africa. Its team, the Springboks, is one of the most formidable nations in international rugby. They have competed at the highest level of the sport, the Rugby World Cup, and have won it once in 1995. That said, the team has been primarily white in a country still reeling from apartheid. 

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However, today, the Springboks have black players, an occurrence that took a big fight. Let’s revisit some of that as we look at the first black player to play in South African rugby. 

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Errol George Tobias Broke the Colour Barrier

Since its formation in 1891, the Springboks have been part of international rugby. However, it took 90 years for them to incorporate a black player into the team. 

Errol George Tobias became the first black player to play for the Springboks. He made his debut during a test match against Ireland at Newlands.

This happened during the administration of Danie Craven, the President of South African rugby at the time. His selection was controversial as some black people didn’t want him to play because apartheid policies were still in place. Some white people didn’t want him to represent the team and claimed he was a token black player.

Speaking exclusively to the Reuters news agency, Errol Tobias praised Danie Craven for following up on his word. 

“He lived up to his word when he said that if there is a player of color who is good enough, he will be selected for the Springboks,”

“My selection against Ireland was so special to me and all people of color. It was no political choice but was based on performance and merit. When I got my chance, it was a great success, and I proved myself representing South Africa.” Tobias said.

Additionally, he revealed that he was bothered by the criticism that met him for being black in a white sport.  

“It was the longest week of my life until the game. There was a bit of criticism, but ‘Doc’ Craven said to me: ‘All you need to do is just put on that jersey, run onto the pitch and produce a game of rugby that we are used to from you.’”

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Errol Tobias’ Playing Profile  

Errol was born on 18 March 1950 in Caledon, South Africa. His earliest interaction with the game can be traced back to August 1978, when he played as a flyhalf for the South African Country Districts XV

In 1971, he made his first-ever international appearance for a multiracial team, the Proteas, under the Coloured South African Rugby Football Federation

In 1979, he was part of the South African Barbarians, one of the first multiracial rugby teams. He played as a centre and was one of three players of colour.

In 1981, he broke into the main South African team, the Springboks. He was the first black player to do so. However, his next call-up to the team came in 1984. The flyhalf played against England and won 33-15 and 39-5 in South Africa.

In the same year, he was part of the team that won against South America in two matches. He earned a total of 15 caps for the Springboks. Tobias retired in 1984 at the age of 34. 

In retrospect, Tobias said that he wanted to show that black players were just as good as white players and they should get opportunities. 

In 2015, Tobias released his book ‘Pure Gold’ where he documented his story as the first black player in South African rugby. In an interview with South African broadcaster SABC, he said he wanted to share this experience with the world.

“I was taunted and mocked. I had to prove myself at the highest level and I eventually became the first Springboks of colour. My biography also addresses the issues of merit and quarter and other issues plaguing players of colour.” He told SABC News.

Errol Tobias played his part in the inclusion of black people in rugby. Regardless of anyone’s opinion, at some point in history, someone had to do it. Today, no one denies that black people are just as good as white people in rugby.

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