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The key to the Springboks' World Cup defence

By Daniel Gallan
Bongi Mbonambi and Elton Jantjies during the Springboks' champions tour on Monday in Cape Town (Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

South Africa’s potential lies in its diversity – and though corrupt politicians and bigoted citizens have yet to harness this energy, the Springboks certainly have.

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Their World Cup win in 1995 helped tear down social and cultural barricades – even if temporarily – and is still regarded as an important cornerstone of Nelson Mandela’s nation building project. Since then a multi-ethnic side has claimed two more World Cups, setting an example and inspiring the rest of the country.

But diversity does not just relate to the squad’s melanin count or the languages they speak. Of all the teams with a realistic chance of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup in France later this year, the Springboks are unquestionably the most assorted bunch by a distance.

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From the recent 41-man training group that gathered for some pre-Rugby Championship fine-tuning, as many as 19 different clubs from five different countries and four different leagues are represented. There are locks who play in Ireland. A scrum half who plays in Japan. A centre based in England and a prop who earns a living in France.

Up and down the team, in every combination on the pitch, players who spend most of their rugby playing days in disparate lands must come together and find something resembling cohesion. Andy Farrell’s Ireland don’t have to worry about that. They’re effectively a Leinster side with a few players from the other provinces thrown in the mix. And though the England, New Zealand and France squads are more diverse in terms of the number of club sides present, they’re all familiar with each other given they play in the same league.

Traditionally, World Cups have been won by relatively homogeneous groups. The victorious All Blacks in 1987 had representatives from six clubs but that shrunk down to four and five in 2011 and 2015 respectively once the franchise system was introduced.

Australia’s two wins in 1991 and 1999 as well as South Africa’s successes in 1995 and 2007 were procured by squads made up of entirely home-based talent. England’s triumph in 2003 stands out for having a solitary foreign-based player in Dan Luger, the winger who had only just made the move from Harlequins to Perpignan before the World Cup kicked off in October that year. But this was an exception that otherwise underlined a clear trend.

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It wasn’t until 2019, when Siya Kolisi’s team steamrolled England in Yokohama, that things really took a turn. Four years ago, the Springboks went to Japan with players under the banner of 12 clubs from four countries – South Africa, Japan, France and England. Conventional wisdom suggested they should have struggled for synchronicity.

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But the Springboks possess a secret weapon that is inaccessible to most other teams. It doesn’t guarantee victory, but it serves as a binding agent that can help maintain a strong foundation to build upon.

Let’s call it Mzansi Magic, using the informal name for South Africa derived from the isiXhosa word for ‘south’. Dismiss it if you like. As Matthew MccConaughey’s character in Wolf of Wall Street might have said, “It’s a whazy. It’s a woozie. It’s fairy dust. It doesn’t exist. It’s never landed. It is no matter. It’s not on the elemental chart. It’s not f****** real.”

But the players believe in this magic. So do the coaches and backroom staff and journalists and broadcasters and fans back home. It is this mythological narrative that tethers the Springboks to something higher than themselves, to something more important than the events on a rugby field, that explains how a team seemingly made up of global mercenaries can come together and play with tangible unity.

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At least that’s the marketing strapline. However, fairy dust doesn’t win titles and the Springboks’ diversity provides them with a more concrete advantage over the competition. No matter what challenge is presented to them at the World Cup, whatever shapes the opposition produce or shifts to their in-game tactics that they tweak, there’s a good chance that someone wearing green and gold would have seen something like it before.

Gone are the days of stumbling into matches at the elite level without hours upon hours of video analysis of the opposition. But there can be no substitute for the live experience and thanks to the range of ideas and cultures that the collective squad has been exposed to, Jacques Ninaber’s team will at least have some muscle memory when they encounter an Irish wraparound move that reminds them of a Leinster attack, or a French counter that looks similar to one unleashed by Toulouse, or a driving maul pulled from Leicester’s playbook.

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The range of intellectual property at their disposal can only be a positive. As anyone who has ever travelled beyond their nation’s borders will know, rubbing shoulders and breaking bread with people who possess a wholly different world view invariably widens your own. It is impossible not to be influenced by alien philosophies once exposed to them. Even if that simply reinforces your own way of doing things, this external force at least shifts the paradigm.

In the past, the Springboks have been dismissed as being one dimensional. They had been a team that stuck with Plan A until all the fuel was burned. At times the divisions between the provinces seemed to have a destabilising effect on the squad. Players from previous generations speak of cliques that formed along these lines.

Now there are 10 Sharks, nine Stormers and three Bulls in the squad. But there are 19 players from clubs from Japan, Ireland, France and England. There isn’t a pairing on the field that won’t feel like a multinational amalgamation, one that marries contrasting strategies and will recognise just about every scenario that could materialise.

Throw all of that under the calcifying force that is the Springboks mantra that carries forth the notion that sport has the power to change the world and you’ve got a potent force primed to defend their crown.

Ireland and France are the leading teams in the world, and the All Blacks remain the pace setters of southern hemisphere rugby, but they’ve never had South Africa’s sense of mission. They now also look monochromatic by comparison.

World Cup winners:

TeamNo of clubsNo of countriesMost representative club
1987 – New Zealand6114 – Auckland
1991 – Australia 2*113 – Queensland & New South Wales
1995 – South Africa5113 – Transvaal
1999 – Australia3112 – Reds
2003 – England1127 – Leicester
2007 – South Africa5111 – Bulls
2011 – New Zealand4111 – Crusaders
2015 – New Zealand 5110 – Crusaders
2019 – South Africa1249 – Stormers

* Australia’s win in 1991 was secured with 26 players that either represented Queensland or New South Wales at the provincial level, but could have been divided according to their local club side. For example, captain Nick Farr-Jones played for Sydney University. Using this metric, we could say that 12 clubs were present in the squad.

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Comments

7 Comments
B
Bob Marler 366 days ago

“ But diversity does not just relate to the squad’s melanin count or the languages they speak”.

There is another very important element to this. Up until quite recently - Rugby in South Africa has been the sport for a minority. A group of people probably not much larger than the population of New Zealand and Ireland.

South Africa has >60 million people. An entire country of people who have been disenfranchised and disenchanted with the game and what it has meant in the past.

Over and above the unifying effect of a winning team for the nation - there is the enormous gene pool of talent and potential that starts to become part of the game in SA. It’s like one of the top tier nations suddenly discovering a new pacific island to draw players from. Except they were always there to begin with.

Years ago - the debate would have been that black players couldn’t or wouldn’t want to play rugby or for the boks. Look at the talent and skill SA has now (and imagine the abilities that have has been sidleined for 100 years).

If the Springboks keep winning the hearts and minds of more and more South Africans. And the grassroots development of the game continues and or speeds up - the future of SA rugby looks very good.

Maybe it’s all hype, smoke and mirrors. Maybe not. If the last 6 years of transformation of the springbok team is anything to go by - I think SA will very soon field a team completely representative of all its people.

G
Gert 386 days ago

Do you still live and work in South Africa? Either you are pushing a dead narrative or you have no clue about what is going on in South Africa. We, the citizens of Mzansi live in unity and love, working together for a better future for all South Africans. You are holding the country back with your old mindset. No Mzansi Magic in your article.

S
Steve 387 days ago

....or you could look at the Most Represented Club column and note that in every case except 2003 the RWC winning side had a key core group of players from a single club. This leads to committed partnerships in attack and defence, common purpose, unity of style, respected leadership..... the list goes on. As a NZ'er and AB supporter of almost 60 years I will always repect and fear any Springbok side, fairy dust, mzansi, Mandela or not. Bring on 15 July!

P
PaPaRumple 387 days ago

Wow this British journalist calling SA citizens bigoted is the very definition of the pot calling the kettle black.

T
TheUltimate 387 days ago

Yep I think a good comparison for SA now is that of Argentina. Argentina pre Super Rugby also drew from a vast pool of clubs and actually did pretty well in world cups and in-between them as well. They then entered Super Rugby on the assumption that their national team would improve.

The irony is they got worse initially.

The Pros of picking from a pool of clubs is that your players more likely than not are not disadvantaged by poor coaching at home or struggling with game time. They will be battle hardened and have depth in IP that can't be matched.

The disadvantage is that you have to be conservative with selection and if the wrong person is managing that team it can turn south real fast. France is prime example of this prior to the Fabien revolution France would chop and change players creating a mess despite having the richest league with world class players in their back yard. Now France's team selection is fairly predictable and those world class players are able to build a good team culture and no wonder success follows.

Jaque Nienaber's Springboks are on the right track. Having missed a full year of team building and strategical evolution it's pretty incredible that the Springboks that the Springboks were within a hair of beating generational best Ireland and France last year away.

Watch out for this team.

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