How should I feel about a crap All Blacks side?
At what point does schadenfreude morph into pity? For how long can one look upon the misery of a fallen adversary before feeling the sharp pang of sympathy? Perhaps these questions are nonsense. Maybe one’s joy is inversely proportional to the suffering of a foe. All the better yet if that foe once ruled the world.
These tangled conundrums have filled my head this week as the South African Springboks host the New Zealand All Blacks on Saturday. As a journalist and observer of the game, I am paid to be neutral, to cast a dispassionate eye on events and report the facts as I see them.
But that is a challenging task when these two teams meet. I am a South African, I am a sports fan and I was raised in the early years of the self-branded ‘New’ South Africa. I was seven-years-old when Joel Stransky nailed a drop goal to hand the Springboks the 1995 Rugby World Cup. I was intoxicated by the belief that sport had the power to change the world, as Nelson Mandela told us, and tightly wrapped myself in the rainbow-nationalism that the former president espoused.
But every hero needs a villain and the All Blacks, those monsters under the bed who’d snatch me away in the night if I didn’t finish my vegetables, were the boogeymen of my deepest nightmares.
They terrified me. But more than that, they fascinated me. Watching them was akin to witnessing a natural disaster in full flow. A Jonah Lomu rampaging run was a volcano erupting. A Zinzan Brooke tackle was a tsunami. The haka was at once sacred and malevolent, like the rumbling incantations of druids .
Beyond any awe or fear I carried, the enduring feeling I had was respect. Every match against these Goliaths felt significant. All the well-worn sporting tropes came alive before these showstopping set-pieces. There were no dead rubbers. Form went out the window. So often it came down to the finest of margins.
We’ll all have our standout moments against the All Blacks. Mine is Richard Bands’ try in Dunedin in 2003 that included a mighty hand-off on the great Carlos Spencer. But more than any individual event or piece of skill, my favourite thing about this rivalry is that it exists. That it’s so often a meeting between the two undisputed powerhouses of the game. That it brings together a collision of brute force and electric guile, a thunderous whirlwind of emotion that knocks the breath out of spectators half a world away.
Which brings us to this week’s contest, the 102nd in 101 years. The All Blacks are currently ranked fourth on World Rugby’s metrics. Read that again. Fourth. Three teams are ahead of them. This is unchartered territory. They’ve just lost consecutive Tests on home soil for the first time in more than two decades. The ravens have left the tower. The wolves are circling. This lot have already been branded the worst All Blacks side in history.
How am I supposed to feel about this? Should I be joyous that an outfit that has inflicted so much heartache on my team has finally been brought low? Should I remind myself that it was New Zealand rugby that made the South Africans feel like unwelcome guests in Super Rugby and so accelerated the decline of what was once the best domestic competition in the world?
I’ll be honest, I do feel those things. But I also feel a degree of sadness. I can’t help but liken myself to a young Gaul in the seventh century, looking up at the crumbling Roman aqueducts and wondering what giants built these wonders.
We’re not there yet. This is an empire on the wane rather than one in ruin, but a chastening defeat to the Springboks in both Tests could prove disastrous for New Zealand. And, to be frank, the Springboks really ought to pulverise them.
I’m not buying the cliches this time. I’m not entertaining the tropes of wounded tigers or the comparisons with cornered Spartans at Thermopylae. The Springboks, the world champion, Lions series winning Springboks, cannot waste their best ever opportunity to rub the All Blacks’ noses in a mess of their own making.
And this is why I am worried. What if New Zealand rouse themselves from their sleepwalk and send a reminder to the world of their former greatness? What if the Springboks saunter into the fight bloated on false impressions and get walloped by a side with a score to settle? Neither team can afford to lose in Mbombela but the South Africans have even less wiggle room than their guests.
Malcom Marx’s inclusion in the starting XV for only the second time since the 2019 World Cup is an indication that coach Jacques Nienaber wants to get at the All Blacks as soon as possible. Like most Springboks matches that matter, this one won’t be pretty. They won’t look to replicate the eye-catching patterns so astutely executed by Ireland. They’ll be direct and forceful. They’ll set themselves up to bully the bullies.
In doing so they’ll heap even more misery on an organisation that once only dealt in triumphs. I wonder how we’ll all feel after that.
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