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South Africans are the masters of taking offence

By Daniel Gallan
(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

There are a few things that the South African rugby ecosystem does better than any of their competitors.

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No other union can match their conveyor belt of elite-level front rowers, their endless supply of versatile lock/flank hybrids or their array of diminutive, jet-heeled, scrum cap-wearing wingers who can side-step a Formula 1 car.

But the most destructive weapon in Rassie Erasmus’ arsenal is something more abstract. More valuable than Cheslin Kolbe’s fast-twitch muscle fibres, Pieter-Steph du Toit’s chest or Ox Nche’s shoulders is South Africa’s unending and unwavering ability to take offence.

This is not meant as a dig – please don’t get offended – and should genuinely be considered a superpower of the Boks. Because no matter what is said about the team, no matter who says it, if the comment is anything other than overwhelmingly positive, free from caveats and devoid of double entendre, then you can be sure that Erasmus and his coaching staff will be printing out those disparaging words and sticking them up on the dressing room wall.

Not convinced? How else can you explain the hype that has been generated in anticipation of the first Test against Ireland this weekend? A promotional video released by the Springboks on official social media channels was titled ‘Unfinished business’ and included several quotes by podcasters, writers and players branding Ireland the best team in the world.

In the two minute clip, Ger Gilroy labels the Boks a bunch of “whining babies”. There’s a shot of Erasmus seething as Irish fans sing The Cranberries’ Zombie after his team’s loss in the World Cup last year. There’s even the suggestion that New Zealand, the Springboks’ great traditional rivals, are no longer considered the biggest scalp in the game.

This is all just grist to the mill. Then, as if those cocky Irish hadn’t gone far enough, as reported by the Munster fan account Three Red Kings, Ireland’s coach Andy Farrell downplayed the beauty of Table Mountain and Caelan Doris deliberately mispronounced the word ‘braai’. Serious lines have now been crossed.

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Willie Le Roux
Willie Le Roux has ensured a respectful handover of the Springboks’ No 15 jersey to Damian Willemse (Photo by Michael Steele – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

In reality, these last two sleights were made up. But does it matter? Perception is often more important than reality and if the Springboks and their passionate supporters feel disrespected, if there is a groundswell of opinion that their two World Cup wins, their British and Irish Lions series victory and their world number one ranking are not adequately recognised by the haters, then that feeds fuel to the furnace.

This week Eben Etzebeth picked at the wounds left by Ireland’s players after the Springboks’ loss in France in September. Apparently a handful in emerald green disrespected Etzebeth, the Boks and the All Blacks for good measure after their 13-8 win. Now whether or not words to the effect of “see you in the final” were actually uttered is not important. What matters is that South Africa’s totemic lock, a giant who probably bakes his bread with ground up bones, believes that this narrative is true. And in doing so he has found that extra bit of motivation to compel him to greater heights.

Damian de Allende, perhaps unaware that Gaza is a ruin, that eastern Ukraine is under Russian occupation and that much of Sudan is a wasteland, recently said that the first Test in Pretoria would be “like a war”. Putting aside the glib metaphor, it does speak to a particular strand of a shared South African mindset.

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Erasmus has already declared the Springboks as the only thing that works in the country. And though he’s not correct, he’s not entirely wrong in that the Springboks are at least the most successful cultural export South Africa has ever produced. Winning on the world stage assuages, at least in the minds of their supporters, failings back home. And so, if someone doesn’t like the way Erasmus conducts himself on social media, or thinks that a seven-one bench split is against the spirit of rugby, or accuses South Africans of demonstrating entitlement in the URC or European competitions, it is hard not to interpret these barbs as attacks on the nation as a whole.

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To reiterate an earlier point, this is a superpower, not a weakness. It is their ability to turn every inch of grass on the field, every point of contact, into a personal struggle. It’s why Erasmus and his coaches compare the line on defence to a player’s own front door, that a ball carrier is not merely an opponent seeking an opening on the field but is akin to a violent home intruder. This tethering of the side to the nation as a whole, with all its challenges and hangups, has been organically brewed but also deliberately orchestrated. It is part of Erasmus’ genius and helps explain why his team wins so many tight and important games.

Of course there’s every chance that this is all guff. That Erasmus and his team are acting the part, fully aware of the joke and are simply playing to the gallery. After all, Erasmus is an executive producer on the hugely popular Chasing the Sun documentary series. He knows a good yarn when he sees one and hyping up this series against Ireland not only stokes passions but also puts bums on seats. A frothing frenzy is good for business.

But I believe there’s an element of honesty in all this. I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit to feeling the sting of a critical line from an English, Australian or Irish journalist in the past. When the Telegraph called the Boks the “most morally compromised team at the World Cup,” I took offence. It made me – once I’d filed my copy and taken off my journalist hat – want to thump my chest and tweet something to the effect of “cry more”.

Boks supporters, and I believe the Boks themselves, want to be loved and respected but they’re just as content being the bad guys of world rugby. Say what you want about them. The meaner the better. All it does is feed the content machine and drive their standards even higher.

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Comments

56 Comments
m
monty 13 days ago

I think i’ll watch bokkie iwish game going by the comments on here sounds like there could be blood on the carpet.

T
Turlough 14 days ago

I see Etzebeth is whinging again.
He is accusing the Irish media of targetting him after he fabricated a story and lied about Irish players being ‘arrogant’ after the quarter final. Poor Eben…..What is it with this sack of shit?

U
Utiku Old Boy 14 days ago

The writer playfully pokes fun at an awesome Bok team and their oft-times thin-skinned supporters but there is a grain of truth to every good joke. It does not undermine the achievements of the team or their motivation to win. As a kiwi, I can appreciate the the Bok mentality of making it “personal” when in the heat of a test match. It is a key part of the reason AB and Bok teams have such historical success. Like all generalities (and humor), such things can be overplayed - and sometimes, the fans don’t recognize that the motivation to win ends at the final whistle when there is shared camaraderie.

D
Daniel 15 days ago

Please, both sets of fans, ignore this writer. He’s trying to stir up shit.

D
DP 15 days ago

As a proud South African I feel Rassie has gone too far (again). There is NO need for this silliness. I’ve never had a problem with Ireland and their coaching staff. Gatland and his BIL were massively disrespectful to South Africa but I don’t see even a modicum of that disrespect from the Irish camp. I have respected for the Irish fans (best in the world along with the Scots IMO) and for this Irish team. Putting this out there - Rassie doesn’t speak for me and any of my Bok supporting mates. Personally feel like this will be a shared series. Play hard but fair. May the best team win.

D
Dan 15 days ago

So not only are they utterly. thick, but they spout ignorant 💩 far too much too.

Tell us something that wasn’t already so obvious?

If they were only intelligent enough to realise that without Barnes and his incompetence, there is no way they win the last RWC too.

S
Senzo Cicero 15 days ago

Nothing article

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Turlough 15 days ago

All that Erasmus has succeeded in doing with this nonsense is lying to his own people that Ireland disrespects South Africa and proving to Irish people that SA are willing to lie about and disrespect Ireland on the off chance they gain a small advantage. SA and Irish supporters should be friends, but the contest now is unpleasant and any friendship soured. Slow hand clap Rassie.

Another mistake Rassie has made, is that for all the conjecture above, is that Ireland take being disrespected FAR WORSE than SA do. Yesterday, Pollard said that the match being held at home and in Pretoria does ‘not automatically guarantee success’. Is that a phrase he would use when facing NZ or England for that matter?

Ireland perform best on long lead ins to matches, when they are disrespected and when they are written off. Have a strong feeling there will be blood on DeKlerks lovely manicured blonde head before the final whistle is blown. SA need taking down a peg or two. Ireland are the team to do it.

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finn 5 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

What a difference 9 months makes! Last autumn everyone was talking about how important versatile bench players were to SA’s WC win, now we’re back to only wanting specialists? The timing of this turn is pretty odd when you consider that some of the best players on the pitch in the SA/Ireland match were Osbourne (a centre playing out of position at 15), Feinberg-Mngomezulu (a fly-half/centre playing out of position at 15), and Frawley (a utility back). Having specialists across the backline is great, but its not always necessary. Personally I think Frawley is unlikely to displace Crowley as first choice 10, but his ability to play 12 and 15 means he’s pretty much guaranteed to hold down a spot on the bench, and should get a decent amount of minutes either at the end of games or starting when there are injuries. I think Willemse is in a similar boat. Feinberg-Mngomezulu possibly could become a regular starter at 10 for the Springboks, but he might not, given he’d have to displace Libbok and Pollard. I think its best not to put all your eggs in one basket - Osbourne played so well at the weekend that he will hopefully be trusted with the 15 shirt for the autumn at least, but if things hadn’t gone well for him he could have bided his time until an opportunity opened up at centre. Similarly Feinberg-Mngomezulu is likely to get a few opportunities at 15 in the coming months due to le Roux’s age and Willemse’s injury, but given SA don’t have a single centre aged under 30 its likely that opportunities could also open up at 12 if he keeps playing there for Stormers. None of this will discount him from being given gametime at 10 - in the last RWC cycle Rassie gave a start at 10 to Frans Steyn, and even gave de Klerk minutes there off the bench - but it will give him far more opportunities for first team rugby.

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