In 1995, the Springbok team was maybe the 4th best team at the Rugby World Cup, with no major stars to boast of. In many ways that year, with Nelson Mandela leading it, circumstance changed the identity and mandate of the Springboks.

During apartheid they were the pride of the minority government – an advert for the racist elite – superiority, power, aggression etc. At the confluence of the old and the new South Africa, the racial divide, with the prompting of Madiba, they were handed a seemingly impossible task. The symbolic strength of the Springbok emblem was handed this weight to carry.

I’m not trying to be nostalgic here, it’s just that these various elements have become part of Springbok DNA. The reality is that in purely rugby terms, SA had no right to claim victory at that tournament, but they did.

Now, the Springboks are facing a different but still a related challenge.

Can the Springboks challenge again?

Former All Black prop Craig Dowd questioned whether the Springboks will ever be able to challenge the All Blacks again (if rugby governance did not change). He was targeting the unions and club level administration. Yes, the Springboks would periodically rise to challenge the All Blacks, but it would not be on a consistent basis, he added.

In retrospect, his comments ring true for the last twenty years when you look at the head-to-head between the two nations since South Africa’s readmission at international level, and the transition to professional era. There were years of Bok dominance (98 & 09), interspersed with years of parity, but the New Zealanders have overturned the old stat emphatically in post-isolation years.

In the last 5 years especially, Springbok supporters have been humbled to no end. Despite all our problems in SA, there is this traditional belief that because the rugby roots are so strong and deep in this country, that our top three or four provincial teams should be able to compete against the best in the world.

This is founded on the record in isolation/amateur years when teams like Western Province (WP) and the Blue Bulls held victories and draws against opposition like Australia, Wales, England and, in WP’s case, even New Zealand (and the Lions getting a victory over the New Zealand Cavaliers in the 80s). So in principle, the old ways held, that we were dominant and physical.

The Eighties

History told us that the Springboks and the All Blacks were the dominant forces in world rugby even though the former was rightfully disallowed from competing on the world stage. So when the 1987 World Cup came around, there was a widely held belief among SA fans that the result had no legitimacy because the Springboks were not involved.

This was during perhaps the most prolific decade in South African rugby history. During the eighties, the North-South derby between WP and the Bulls was at its zenith and to South African rugby fans, the Currie Cup was our World Cup – being the highest achievement an SA player could aim for. During the decade, WP won 5 Currie Cup titles and the Bulls 4, with one draw. It was a glorious era boasting talent like Morne Du Plessis, Carel Du Plessis, Naas Botha, Schalk Burger Snr, Niel Burger, Ray Mordt, Divan Serfontein, Nick Mallet et al. World Class talent across the park.

The great Naas Botha in 1987.
By .Blackcat, via Wikimedia Commons

But, the old blueprint or archetypical thinking is just that, in the past. For a while in the professional era we’ve gotten by because the Springboks still carried the aura, the remnant of the strong, powerful and physical forward pack. In theory, that is still there – where the old ethos is ‘if our attack is thwarted, our physicality and defence will prevent the scoreline from getting out of reach’.

In other words, it was the old conservative mindset of defence, aggression (often illegal) and physicality first (and sometimes only, where talent was lacking), with all else a distant second. This despite producing some mercurial backline talent. But in the modern game, these traditional elements can often be negated.

North – South

Opposing attitudes: This may well be at the core of divisions in the rugby landscape of SA, but it manifests itself in every other area. The old cornerstones of rugby – the tenets if you will.

In the South (or on the coast – WP, EP, Natal) was the doctrine of ‘swing the ball wide’, ‘let the ball do the work’, ‘hands’, ‘speed’, ‘skill’, ‘pass’, ‘take the gap’ – positive, flowing rugby etc.

In the North (or inland/Highveld – Transvaal, Northern Transvaal and to a lesser extent Free State) it was ‘crash ball’, ‘drive’ (them into the ground), ‘maul’, ‘kick’, tackle, ‘go through or over an opponent, not around him’ – negative, conservative, clinical but boring rugby.

The oldest stadium in SA is Newlands, and it is home to possibly the most critical (but also knowledgeable and finicky) crowds in the game. It’s not enough to win, you must win the right way. I remember 10-15 yrs ago when the Stormers/WP were going through a slump, the home games would still be well attended, if only for the crowd to get the chance to boo their own team – because everyone’s a coach in their own mind.

Even when they’d turned the corner, the game plan wasn’t right – too conservative… basically, if the wings are not getting the ball, there’s something drastically wrong with our game. I’m exaggerating of course, but I remember walking out the gates of the Railway stand some years ago after a Currie Cup loss to the Sharks, and the famous chant of “PRRROOOOOVINCE, P-R-O-O-O-V-I-N-C-E” had morphed into “PRO-O-OB-LEMS”… its well known to many that when WP are losing (and the opposition are playing well), we’ll cheer the opposition and slate our own team, particularly because we know their potential, and expect them to win every game.

Newlands. The home of Western Province.
By dmaritz2001, via Wikimedia Commons

Basically, it’s a love of the game, but the game in its entirety. Currently, the All Blacks are playing the best brand of what former Springbok coach P.Divvy was alluding to in calling it “total rugby”.

Some have labelled the Cape as ‘Little Dunedin’, due to the healthy All Black support base – the Cape Crusaders; in part this is due to the above-mentioned rugby philosophy and positive attitude to the game – as one journalist called it, the difference between the hard-edged boring kick and maul (& often dirty) rugby compared to the exciting champagne ‘sexy’ rugby.

But the support for the All Blacks is also due to the name – that so conveniently and seamlessly weaved its way into the historical racial narrative, providing a sort of surrogate team to oppose the racist government’s champion team… that, and the coolness factor. It’s no secret that the All Blacks are the coolest rugby team on the planet, with a war ‘dance’ to boot and talented players to fill out the mysticism that’s so often attached.

The war ‘dance’ from 2017.
By, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s the model of what Rugby should be, which even neutral rugby lovers appreciate. And when a Springbok team faced off against them to sometimes ruin the party, often with a bloodied nose (and there would always be that one dirty player treating the game as if it were an excuse to hurt someone) it was easy to recognize the good guys and the bad guys.

The Springboks have always had the reputation of school-boy bully rugby – and they ran with it, even enjoyed it, and wore it like a badge of honour, sort of an undercurrent of ‘they hate us, but secretly want to be us’, or maybe they just didn’t care a hoot what people thought of them. In any case, it’s that villainous streak in Bok DNA that played on the conscience of rugby supporters – who understandably could not separate the love for the game, and their hate for the apartheid system reflected in the Bok ideal.

But in retrospect, as many have said, it’s a perfect foil, what the rugby landscape needs, the other ugly brother of the sport, who does his own thing in his own way. If NZ and SA were boxers then NZ would be the perfect athlete with great skill and form, and SA would be the ugly brawler, who may not always win, but who had the ability and power to sucker punch you in the gut and hurt you.

In reality, when you look at the deep divisions and rugby politics in South Africa, then adding the political politics and agendas, it’s easy to see why SA is the ugly duckling of the sport. Or as some have said, the sleeping monster – at war with itself.

Read Part One

Steven Benjamin

Author: Steven Benjamin


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