Rugby's black history
October 21, 2010
Errol Tobias in action for the Proteas in 1984 © Getty Images
As Black History Month continues in the UK, we've pulled together the stories of those who took a stand or blazed a trail for black players in our latest Scrum Seven.
Errol Tobias - South Africa
As the first black man to play for South Africa, Tobias has an important place in the history of the game. His Test bow came against Ireland in 1981 and found opposition on both sides of the country's Apartheid regime. A strong-running and expressive centre or fly-half, Tobias put aside criticism of his selection from pro-Apartheid voices to start at inside-centre for his first Test, with numbers 10 and 13 filled by legendary Springboks Naas Botha and Danie Gerber.
Later in 1981 he was selected for a combustible tour to New Zealand, when the Springbok side was hounded by protestors, but failed to crack the Test XV. His final action for the Springboks came in 1984 against England and South America. He retired from playing aged 34. "We had no say in politics. We didn't even have a vote, so all I knew at that stage was to play rugby," he said. "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."
His sentiments were echoed by Botha: "I can't talk about how he felt but I felt very comfortable with Errol in the squad, I didn't see him as a token and I believe he was there on merit. He had the right to be on the tour and he was definitely part of the whole squad."
James Peters - England
Peters - the first black player to play for England in 1906 - lived a life that would not look out of place among Roald Dahl's twisted fairytales. The son of a West Indian circus performer, his early life involved bare-back riding before his father's death at the hands of a lion. Peters was later abandoned by a separate troupe and found his way to Fagen's orphanage in London - watching Blackheath play rugby and turning out for the orphanage team. A trained carpenter, he later found work in Bristol and played 35 games for the city's rugby team between 1900 and 1902 despite protestations from several committee members.
His profession then took him to the Royal Naval Dockyards in Plymouth - where he began a successful relationship with Plymouth Albion and also the Devon county team in 1903. His England bow in 1906 - against Scotland at Inverleith - came in the same year that the touring Springboks refused to play Devon due to Peters' selection at fly-half. The South African high commissioner stepped in and the game eventually went ahead in front of a crowd of 18,000. Peters was nevertheless overlooked by England for their meeting with the Boks but he did play for his country again, against Ireland and Scotland in 1907 and Wales in 1908. He later 'went north' to play in the fledgling rugby league structures after a retirement gift from Plymouth, following an injury at work that cost Peters three fingers, was misconstrued as payment by the strictly-amateur authorities.
George Gregan - Australia
Gregan is currently perched atop the list of all-time Test caps holders and his record of 139 appearances for Australia is unlikely to be overhauled any time soon. Born in Zambia, to an Australian father and Zimbabwean mother, Gregan came to characterise Australia's golden period at the turn of the Millennium along with other legendary Wallabies including John Eales, Tim Horan and Matt Burke.
His axis with fly-half Stephen Larkham underpinned the Wallabies' 1999 Rugby World Cup victory as well as Tri-Nations titles in 2000 and 2001 while in the colours of the Brumbies he tasted Super 12 success on two occasions. He played his first Test against Italy in 1994, his 100th in 2005, broke the record as the most-capped skipper of Australia in 2006 and set his caps benchmark with his final appearance in green and gold in the quarter-final loss to England at the 2007 Rugby World Cup. His is an exemplary record, and it can't hurt that he also pulled of this tackle on All Black Jeff Wilson in 1994.
Lloyd McDermott - Australia
In 1962 McDermott became the first Aboriginal player to turn out for the Wallabies, playing two Tests against the All Blacks in Brisbane and Sydney. In 1963 Australia were slated to tour South Africa, a trip that McDermott declared himself unavailable for due to Apartheid. Instead, he crossed codes to play rugby league. "I didn't want to be seen as an honorary white, so I took the stand prior to the team being selected and I realise now I have no regrets," McDermott told Total Rugby.
"It was the right decision. I was an Aboriginal person, I realised that my life would be a struggle and it might assist in the South African struggle in some small way that I take a stand." Following his retirement he became a barrister and later founded the Lloyd McDermott Rugby Development Trust.
The Ella brothers, Glen, Mark and Gary, and Lloyd Walker followed McDermott into a Wallaby jumper in the 1980s but it was not until 2010 - in their meeting with New Zealand in Christchurch - that Australia included three Aboriginal players in the same starting line-up. On that occasion the Faingaa brothers, Saia and Anthony, and fullback Kurtley Beale all made the starting XV.
Chester Williams - South Africa
The face of South Africa's 1995 Rugby World Cup, Williams' career was one beset by the idiosyncrasies of the country post-Apartheid. A winger for Western Province, he was a late call-up to the Springboks squad at the World Cup thanks to Pieter Hendricks' suspension for his part in a spectacular brawl against Canada. He scored four tries against Samoa in his first appearance of the tournament and was after that point an ever-present in the side through to their eventual triumph in the final.
With his role now immortalised in the faintly ridiculous Hollywood blockbuster Invictus, it's easy for some to forget Williams' criticism of South African rugby's quota system - something that he became a victim of in his later career - and also the accusations of racism he levelled at certain team-mates in his autobiography Chester. "It could never occur to them that a black player could be better than a white," he said. "They only tolerated us in the team because it made them look as though they had embraced change. You know, much of it was born of the belief that being white in South Africa somehow made you superior to anyone born black."
Billy Boston - Wigan RL & Great Britain
Born in Cardiff's Tiger Bay, a multicultural sprawl encompassing the homes of many of the city's dock workers, Boston emerged as a talent with Neath and Pontypridd in the early 1950s. The powerful winger, whose father originated from Sierra Leone, was not long for union however and became one of the all-time greats of the 13-man-code after joining Wigan. Boston went on to win 31 caps for Great Britain as well as scoring an incredible 478 tries for Wigan. Wales missed out on a gem however, with Boston crediting an undercurrent of racism with preventing him from playing for Cardiff or Wales. "I was disappointed that Cardiff never showed any interest in me and I think that was because of my colour," he told The Western Mail. "They certainly wouldn't let me into their clubhouse after I turned professional. I don't think I would ever have been picked for Wales at union."
Peter De Villiers - South Africa
The first black coach of South Africa, De Villiers' lurches between success and failure in charge of the Springboks and his 'colourful' conduct with the press have served to undermine the importance of his position. He was not helped when South African Rugby Union chief Oregan Hoskins admitted that his appointment had plenty to do with the colour of his skin - a statement that added fuel to his detractors' fire and apparently set him up for a fall following the World Cup-winning exploits of his predecessor, Jake White. De Villiers' highs - a series win over the British & Irish Lions, victory over New Zealand in Dunedin in 2008 and their brilliant 2009 Tri-Nations victory - have largely been pushed aside thanks to his side's dismal performance in 2010. The pressure remains on him, as it has since his appointment, and it's difficult to see that changing any time soon given the skills exhibited by Australia and New Zealand in recent Tests.
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