RUGBY, like any other high profile sport, is about heroes. This is good, because we need heroes. Boys, for instance, will look at the guy in the Springbok jersey, note his extraordinary skill and athleticism; his loyalty to team and country; his magnetic capacity to attract adoration, money and pretty girls and think: I want to be him.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about how, given SA’s world record-breaking levels of inequality, it was so much harder for black boys to become Springboks — and acquire the accompanying hero status (A tale of two would-be rugby Springboks — Johannes and Fikile, September 4)

One of the many responses I got was from another international hero, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He wrote: "Of course, she is right, that we need the transformation of our society. But you do have black players who have emerged and it is up to us to nurture them as we seek to transform society. Precisely because they have made it against such formidable odds, they should be treasured. Even when they are obviously better than their white counterparts, they have white players who have all the advantages she mentions picked ahead of them.

"You have the (Siya) Kolisis, etc, who, precisely because they have come out of the morass of disadvantage, should be snapped up. Her argument seems to be that we should wait until, as it were, the fields have been levelled before we can demand that more black players are picked.

"Of course, we must transform SA and in the meantime pick those who have made it against all odds. They should be rewarded for their remarkable tenacity."

I was pleased to get this, partly because some of the other responses I got were along the lines of: oh well, we are off the hook now. Until the government gets round to feeding and educating black boys properly, we can’t have more black Springboks.

Which is not what I meant at all.

Like Nelson Mandela, Tutu displayed an early and extraordinary magnanimity towards the then recalcitrant white rugby community. Unlike Mandela, who was largely politically motivated, Tutu’s love of rugby also kicked in.

But mainly I’m delighted that someone of Tutu’s stature is engaging in the debate about transformation ahead of our next big milestone — the 2015 Rugby World Cup — and I hope he continues to do so.

Tutu’s credentials for this debate are impeccable: not only did he play rugby but he is also intimately acquainted with the hardships of growing up black and poor under apartheid.

"Tutu joined the most junior of the school’s rugby teams (the Johannesburg Bantu High School in Western Native Township), his slightness dictating that he play scrumhalf. This was the beginning of a life-long love of the sport: on Saturdays, carrying sandwiches made by his mother, he caught a train on his own to the original Ellis Park rugby ground in Johannesburg and, from the small pen set aside for black spectators, watched Transvaal rugby heroes such as Jan Lotz," Tutu’s biographer, John Allen, records in Rabble-rouser for Peace.

Allen goes on to describe how Tutu was sent to stay with an uncle closer to his school when his parents could no longer afford the train fare. He shared a backyard shack with two to five others at a time and had to wash at a communal outdoor cold tap. Much of his and his fellow pupils’ time outside the classroom went into finding food.

Like Nelson Mandela, Tutu displayed an early and extraordinary magnanimity towards the then recalcitrant white rugby community. Unlike Mandela, who was largely politically motivated, Tutu’s love of rugby also kicked in.

At the Springboks’ first game in the 1995 Rugby World Cup — against Australia at Newlands — the Springboks gave Tutu a No24 jersey. Afterwards, he told Die Burger that, if the Boks won, he would walk down Adderley Street wearing the jersey. A promise he duly went on to fulfil after that historic victory in the final against the All Blacks at Ellis Park, where Tutu was once confined to the hokkie set aside for "bantus".

There is a back story to each of the men about to don Springbok jerseys for next month’s end-of-year tour to Europe and it is mostly far from glamorous. Obviously, great natural talent is a starting point, but what gets any player to the point where he is good enough to represent his country is hard work, sacrifice and discipline.

Above all, it is about determination and perseverance in the face of the many obstacles that will block the paths of any aspirant Springbok: failure, rejection, injury. The ability to absorb these setbacks and nevertheless continue to pursue the dream is what marks out anyone who makes it to the top in the highly competitive world of professional sport.

As Tutu points out, the black players from poor backgrounds who have made it into rugby’s highest ranks have displayed extraordinary tenacity. This means that they possess in buckets one of the more important characteristics of a top rugby player. That alone should give them added value to a Bok team.

On top of that is the hope and inspiration it gives to thousands of other poor black boys dreaming of joining the ranks of their heroes.

See more articles