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Race dispute roils South African rugby and American player gets first start for Joburg rugby team

Race is always a heated topic of conversation among South African rugby circles, and for the local Golden Lions Rugby Union the discussion recently reached the boiling point.

As reported by GlobalPost last month, rugby has long been the stronghold of white Afrikaners, but rugby managers are under increasing pressure to incorporate more black players in their teams.

Following the stinging defeat of the Johannesburg-based Lions by the Cape Town team a couple of weeks ago, the Lions’ assistant coach gave his team a much-deserved scolding but allegedly singled out two black players by telling them they would be saved by the color of their skin.

Outrage followed, and the coach was suspended pending a disciplinary hearing, which took place today. The enquiry found that “the allegations of racial remarks could not be substantiated.” Nonetheless, the assistant coach was found guilty of “abusive language” and was immediately fired.

This comes at a time when the local rugby union is trying to clean up its image by conducting a new anti-racism campaign and promoting the game as neither black nor white. It remains, however, that the Lions rarely field more than two black players on their 15-member team, and the few blacks in the stadium are usually selling drinks and sausages to the almost exclusively white crowd.

Meanwhile, California-born Todd Clever (see photo below) made his first start of the season for the Lions on Saturday. The Lions play in a provincial competition that includes teams from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, allowing Clever to play in what is arguably the toughest rugby competition in the world.

The Lions gig is a unique opportunity for Clever — the captain of the U.S. national team —  to improve his game, but playing for the Lions carries added value as the team plays its home games at Ellis Park. The stadium is one of the most famous in the rugby world, and the site of former President Nelson Mandela’s charm offensive toward South Africa’s white minority when he handed the 1995 rugby World Cup trophy to South African captain François Pienaar. The iconic moment is to be immortalized in an upcoming movie featuring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

Clever confided that the stadium’s history was very much on his mind when he took his first step on the pitch.

“Those are the things I thought of before I actually set foot on the grass, and it’s something that I’ll keep sacred to my heart,” he said.