Sale boss Steve Diamond has described the controversy over his South African players’ refusal to take a knee prior to last Friday’s Gallagher Premiership restart match versus Harlequins as a “storm in a teacup”.    

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Sale’s preparations for next Friday’s visit to the AJ Bell by league leaders Exeter Chiefs have been sidetracked by rancour in South Africa over what Diamond’s SA players did prior to last weekend’s game at The Stoop.  

Nathi Mthethwa, the South African Minister of Sports, Arts, and Culture, had sparked a racism row over how Sale’s South African contingent did not take the knee before the Gallagher Premiership match to signal support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

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Mthethwa has asked South African Rugby to explain the sport’s position but did acknowledge South African players in the Premiership had worn t-shirts supporting the fight against racism.

The Sale players who did not kneel before last Friday’s Premiership match at Harlequins were Springbok World Cup winners Faf de Klerk and Lood de Jager‚ twins Jean-Luc and Daniel du Preez‚ their older brother Robert‚ Akker van der Merwe‚ Coenie Oosthuizen and club captain Jono Ross. England’s Manu Tuilagi, Scotland wing Byron McGuigan and Wales prop WillGriff John also stood.

Gloucester’s Ruan Ackermann also stood before Gloucester’s game with Worcester the following day on a weekend where Premiership clubs had all agreed on various ways to signal their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Some clubs, for example, formed a circle on the pitch.

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Diamond addressed the unwanted row at his weekly media conference on Tuesday. “Four of our players took the knee and that is their entitlement and the rest didn’t,” he said. “It will be a storm in a teacup and we all wore the Rugby Against Racism t-shirts which we thought was important. I don’t think it is too much to worry about if I am honest.”

Former Harlequins, England and British and Irish Lions wing Ugo Monye was involved in a players’ working group containing a representative from each of the twelve Premiership clubs to deal with the BLM issue before the season started.

Last week he explained that players may take the knee or stand wearing a slogan on a t-shirt, saying: “It might look a little bit more like Formula 1, but I don’t want people to jump to conclusions and assumptions that by people not taking the knee that means they are racist.”

The Rugby Players’ Association, the players’ union in England, had explained the Premiership’s approach before the season restarted last Friday after its five-month stoppage for the coronavirus. 

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“How each of our members choose to act in relation to this moment is a matter of their personal choice. We respect and defend their individual right to make that decision.”

The Sale players all wore the ‘Rugby Against Racism’ t-shirts, as did Ackermann, but this has not stopped Mthethwa asking for an explanation. “We do not want to jump the gun on the specific matter of the South African players in England who didn’t kneel in support of the BLM movement but we did say we want to understand what is happening and what is the position of SA Rugby in this whole thing‚” Mthethwa told South African media.

“The first thing we noted is that they were wearing the t-shirts which support [the] BLM movement but they did not kneel. Upon seeing this‚ I interacted with SA Rugby through its president (Mark Alexander) and I asked him to explain what is happening so that we are on the same wavelength.

“You must remember we were together at the World Cup in Japan as a country with some of the players and one thing which cannot be tolerated is when somebody is displaying racist behaviour and showing racist attitude. The president of SA Rugby did say that they are going to be having their own meeting and they will make their views known.”

“The first thing we noted is that they were wearing the t-shirts which support [the] BLM movement but they did not kneel. Upon seeing this‚ I interacted with SA Rugby through its president (Mark Alexander) and I asked him to explain what’s happening so that we are on the same wavelength.

“You must remember we were together at the World Cup in Japan as a country with some of the players and one thing which cannot be tolerated is when somebody is displaying racist behaviour and showing racist attitude. The president of SA Rugby did say that they are going to be having their own meeting and they will make their views known.”

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