An Open Letter to Springbok fans

Living in SA and reading so many comments after every loss or draw can really warp one’s view of the landscape. But if we were to take a coaching course we might view the team dynamic differently.

Everyone has their own opinion, born from a few years of playing rugby at school and religiously watching the game on TV, and in all honesty, their/our opinion probably had a lot more validity in the semi-pro era. But today, with teams so evenly matched at the sharp end it’s a bit like tinkering with a formula one car. Everyone goes to their own workshops, spends months designing and engineering the perfect racing machine, and then at the end of the day, the difference across the top 5 cars are fractions of a second.

In top-flight rugby, it’s a different ball game, or it IS a ball game, but with similar ramifications.

Reality

I always talk about “reality”, because in our fantasy rugby world, everything works out the way you plan it. But really, in the top 5 of world rugby, if you get a few things wrong, it could be the difference between 5 and 50 points.

Back in 2009, the Boks thrived off everyone else’s mistakes, literally winning their games simply by capitalising on what the opposition was doing wrong, or not as well. It was a game of pressure, forcing the opposition into making mistakes. Two years later and their game evolved into a more expansive and adaptable one (but that’s a story for another day). Fast forward to today, and the All Blacks do things in a similar fashion to the team of ’09. Or more precisely, a big portion of their game is the ability to ruthlessly punish their opposition’s mistakes, that’s in addition to their clinical edge in their brilliant and skilful attacking game.

So, make a few mistakes against them and you effectively hand them the initiative, the momentum and the game (just about). And that’s basically the gist of test match rugby when you’re measuring yourself against the best. They are the test – the examination, especially when they’re up for it and playing with intent – when there’s something on the line, even if it’s just pride or bragging rights.

Morné Steyn about to punish someone’s mistake.
By JMK, via Wikimedia Commons

I may be a little off, but I believe we’re effectively in unchartered waters here in the global rugby arena. Yes, the All Blacks have always been great and the most consistent team, but to my knowledge, they were never out and out the undisputed best, bar none. In days gone by, even when the ALL Blacks were number one ranked in the world (and deservedly so), there was always one or two teams who, on their day, could beat them. Often it was the Springboks (sometimes with a proviso – the Boks could beat the All Blacks at home and if so-and-so was playing) who provided the most “consistent” challenge, at least in terms of providing a good contest.

But today, the ABs are way out in front. It’s a gap to 2nd place (England) followed immediately by a clump of teams in the midst of re-growth/rebuilding midway through the World Cup cycle.

Whether enforced or not, the Springboks (the seemingly ancient rival) are finally undergoing their biggest overhaul and deepest self-examination process in their history. It’s something that was inevitable and long overdue.

In the 2015 World Cup, the team reverted to type and traded in their (then) new expansive racing drive-train and low slung suspension for the axels from the old but reliable farm wagon. When in doubt trust the old ways and so on (maul, crash ball, scrum, kick, lineout, penalty, repeat) – aka, boring, but effective rugby. As one journalist put it, play tractor rugby, and farm the field for points, usually penalties.

play tractor rugby, and farm the field for points, usually penalties

However, it’s only effective if you know how to do it and do it well – with the intense physicality thrown in. And it nearly worked too; 20-18, all that was needed was one score, one decision, one moment etc.

Dan Carter and Beauden Barrett celebrate Barrett’s try. Rugby World Cup Semi Final, South Africa v New Zealand.
Copyright Photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.Photosport.nz

But on the balance of history and the trend over the professional era, it was the right result. The game has moved on, but Springbok rugby has been caught napping on the plough, resting on its laurels and sandbagged by the former glory, even whilst seeing the change coming, the storm clouds brewing. The Springbok machine, however, has always been a big unit (a battering ram designed in the labs of apartheid), difficult to change course, small consistent corrections seemingly being the answer.

Change is slow

The economics and struggles within the country as a whole have meant that change on the rugby field has been at a maul’s pace – in the sense that we haven’t kept up with the global game. Sure, thanks to the well built and funded institutions in the land, SA is still a reliable rugby player factory, but the challenge has been to translate/expand that level of infrastructure to the broader population even whilst negotiating the evolution of the modern game.

Of the top non-white players in the modern era, the vast majority came through previously whites-only schools. [Siya Kolisi was spotted in a SARU rugby clinic in a rural township in the Eastern Cape; from there he got a rugby scholarship to Grey High School. At the moment he’s a sort of a poster-boy/bear for the rugby development and clinics program.]

Siya Kolisi
© Chris Ricco/BackpagePix

Now we’re in the storm, we’ve been upended a few times, but there’s more than enough depth to ensure that it rights itself again. Whereas NZ are out ahead cutting the water (with England pulling up on their shoulder), everyone else is jostling in their wake. In order to overtake the teams in the chasing pack, we first need to overcome all the churned up water – and we’re heading into choppier waters if we don’t keep our wits about us. [Sorry for all the mixed metaphors]

Our divided past is exactly why we struggled to unite behind the Springboks. The irony is that despite the success of the rugby team, as we’ve seen, a winning Springboks side does not equal a uniformly happy/united public. It worked mostly in 1995, but reality has bitten back.

Token Vision

It may only be a token vision, but it’s still one to aspire to – that in the past, an all-white Springbok team represented a strong, wealthy and thriving white minority within SA; but now, if a multi-racial Springbok team can play well and win together, then maybe it provides some semblance of a vision of where SA sees itself in the future. The nature of rugby lends itself well to this ideal, as the 95 Boks demonstrated. Minus any stars and not the best team by a long shot, a group of guys banded together, and shouldered the added weight (put there by the president) to grind their way to an unlikely, even improbable win.

It is this narrative that the rugby fan of SA should lean upon (remember the shambles of results in the years building up to 1995?), and not the luxury of the star-studded 2007 Bok team. There will always be a few false dawns before the team clicks into gear.

Perhaps this is what the future Springbok legacy will be forged in, this emblem or brand, to get a little melodramatic and use a pop-culture reference (vis-à-vis Batman), that the Springboks can shoulder this burden, and can be a symbol. They can take it, not as individuals but together. And this symbol that was once a beacon of the enemy/white elite… can be a symbol of reconciliation, to carve out some kind of new legacy.

Yes, all that sounds corny, but the divisions in the country are real; wealth, culture, language etc. and also opinion are all things which divide the nation. However, sport is meant to be that thing that unites. But sometimes when you hold a mirror up to society we don’t like the image staring back at us. So now the powers that be seem to want to remake that image into what we want ourselves to look like, and hopefully we will begin to conform to that new image, not least of which is in our thinking. It might not be that well communicated, but it is at the heart of the Transformation ideal that at the moment feels like a mess.

But sometimes when you hold a mirror up to society we don’t like the image staring back at us.

Yes, it’s not fair, but that’s the thing about a team sport too, sometimes you play hurt, and your body isn’t what it used to be, or your form has slackened off, or you notice your teammate’s head is down and confidence is low. In the team sport you support each other, you play for each other. As one. And the unity and brotherhood of the collective will lift you to perform so that even when you’re nowhere near 100%, you still deliver 100%.

When we plough the best that the country has to offer into a certain area, the product is something that is second to none, something that can stand proud (dominate) on the world stage.

And if you think that historically the Springboks always selected the “best” talent of what the country had to offer, think again.

Recognition and reconciliation

What this is about is recognition and reconciliation. Yes, it’s only a game – sport, but in the ancient days, sport was invented to replace war. Instead of killing one another, it was about bettering and competing against one another.

But in SA the struggle has always been (since the country was founded) for over 500 years, a battle to stand together, to unite under one banner and recognise the man besides yourself. From a different culture, race and creed, and see him as a fellow human, a brother even. To then stand together and face the world together.

For this, we need a renewal of our minds and to lean upon that which is greater than ourselves.

Read Part One here, Part Two here and Part Three here.

Steven Benjamin

Author: Steven Benjamin

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