Premiership Rugby’s Rugby Against Racism initiative last weekend was perhaps defined more by those who did not take a knee before kick-off than those who did – and now a South African trade union joined the debate initially sparked by the actions of the Sale players last Friday.

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In support of the Black Lives Matter movement, each Gallagher Premiership side showed their support in different ways, but there was a large contingent of players that opted not to take a knee, something that has been seen in many sports over the past months. 

Players have already defended their decision, such as Saracens’ Billy Vunipola who chose not to kneel for religious reasons. However, Sale Sharks drew the most attention on Friday night when eleven of their starting XV chose not to kneel, eight of which were South African. 

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Those included 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. They did, however, wear the Rugby Against Racism t-shirts to show support for the Premiership’s cause. 

Sale’s director of rugby Steve Diamond was quick to dismiss the issue, but South Africa’s Minister of Sports, Arts, and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, asked for an explanation as to why so many players have taken this stance and urged South Africa Rugby to respond. 

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But the South African trade union Solidarity have addressed the minister’s inquiry, saying the players were well within their rights to remain standing. 

Werner Human, the union’s deputy chief executive officer for legal affairs and research, provided more information on Solidarity’s website. He said (translated from Afrikaans on Google): 

“Such behaviour is completely outside the competence of the minister and infringes on these players’ freedom of speech, beliefs and religion. In fact, we are not even talking about freedom of expression – the minister is trying to bring about forced expression of speech here. It can never be tolerated.”

The head of the vocational guilds division, Hennie Bierman, developed this reaction further, explaining the position the players are in. He said: “Athletes are already in a particularly vulnerable position with regard to job security. We cannot allow their constitutional rights to be violated either.”

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With Sale set to play again on Friday against Exeter, their players’ actions before kick-off will likely again be scrutinised.

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