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What the 'Cry Boks' say about the modern South African male

By Daniel Gallan
South African players celebrate victory as the final whistle is blown during the Rugby World Cup 2023 Final between New Zealand and South Africa at the Stade de France on October 28th 2023 in Paris, France (Photo by Tom Jenkins/Getty Images)

In a sport filled with tough men, Duane Vermuelen stood out across a 19-year career. You don’t earn the nickname “Thor” by playing nice, and for nearly two decades, this 6 ft 4 in, 260 lbs hammer of a man pounded opponents on either side of the ball.

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But in Chasing the Sun 2, the five-part docuseries chronicling the Springboks’ 2023 World Cup triumph, Vermeulen cries like a child who’s been told he can’t stay up past his bedtime.

Maybe that’s a little harsh. After all, Vermeulen was reflecting on the joy he felt having his wife and children with him on the pitch as he helped secure a second Webb Ellis Cup in four years. Having lost his own father when he was just eight, it was a poignant moment.

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Chasing the Sun on RugbyPass TV | RPTV

Chasing the Sun, the extraordinary documentary that traces the Springboks’ road to victory at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, is coming to RugbyPass TV.

Watch now

Video Spacer

Chasing the Sun on RugbyPass TV | RPTV

Chasing the Sun, the extraordinary documentary that traces the Springboks’ road to victory at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, is coming to RugbyPass TV.

Watch now

Still, this is Duane Vermuelen we’re talking about. A man nicknamed after the Norse god responsible for lightning and thunder. A seemingly bullet-proof rugby player from a typically conservative Afrikaans community that places great stock in traditionally masculine virtues. To see him spill his guts in such a raw manner was not only emotionally moving, but culturally confronting.

The thing is, he wasn’t alone.

In the first season of Chasing the Sun, which was made after the Springboks’ 2019 World Cup win, Rassie Erasmus is practically inconsolable when he recounts the story of Makazole Mapimpi. The alpha uncle of South African rugby is reduced to a blubbering mess when he tells the tale of why his star winger did not supply the team’s kit manager with photos of loved ones to be adorned on the back of his jersey. With most of his family either dead or absent from his life, Mapimpi had to make do with pictures of himself.

There were similar waterworks after South Africa’s dramatic one-point win over England in the 2023 semi-final. Bongi Mbonambi, a man who looks like Mike Tyson with the power to match the great heavyweight boxing champion, melted in the Boks’ dressing room post-match. One of the team’s leaders had absorbed so much pressure across that absorbing contest that the release through his tear ducts effectively diminished him to a prepubescent kid. Once he gathered himself he looked up at Erasmus like a son to his father and leaned in for a soft hug.

In one episode Kwagga Smith is crying. After almost every tight win Pieter-Steph du Toit cries. There are tears from Damian Willemse and Jacques Nienaber and Daan Human and Deon Fourie. If saltwater could help crops grow, this batch of Boks would ensure there’d never be food shortages in South Africa ever again.

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None of this is meant to shame the Springboks. The opposite is true. This is meant to praise a group of South African men for challenging ingrained stereotypes around masculinity. What’s more, as a psychologist friend put it to me, they’ve given permission to other men who might have felt unsure on how to express the full range of their own feelings.

Across the multiple WhatsApp groups I’m a part of that mentioned Chasing the Sun, a common joke emerged. Though it was delivered differently, the broad message was that any South African watching should have a box of tissues close at hand.

This is not the South Africa I was raised in. At school, even in schools not renowned for their sporting prowess, any winter sport other than rugby was derided for being effeminate. Hockey, a sport that involves 22 players running around with sticks whacking a hard ball at great speed, was given the Afrikaans name ‘mofstof’, essentially, ‘gay stick’. This was a running gag from Cape Town to Pretoria.

Rassie Erasmus
Rassie Erasmus is an arch strategist and communicator (Photo Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
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Rugby was not subject to ridicule. Despite the fact that the game is – let’s be honest – dripping with homoerotic events (ever played No 8?), it is regarded as the most manly of all pastimes. These masculine celebrations are seen in clubhouses where gallons of beer are put away in jaw-dropping gulps. They’re there in the locker room banter that – again, let’s be honest – veers into the sort of chat that landed Donald Trump in trouble during his 2016 US presidential campaign.

It’s woven into every thread of a sport that still treats the women’s game like a sideshow, that is littered with homophobic slurs and after-dinner speeches from retired pros that basically boil down to how many times they shagged on tour.

It’s there again when so many of Erasmus’ team talks are diluted to the mantra of “fuck them up physically”. This is a violent game. There is not only the risk of broken bones but life-changing brain trauma. It’s why commentators and journalists describe those who participate at the highest level as warriors and soldiers. It’s why Mbonambi and other Springboks compare the line behind them on defence to their front door that needs protecting as if Ben Earl or Jordie Barrett were home intruders hell-bent on abusing their family.

South African

In a country as violent and misogynistic as South Africa, a nation where one in five women in relationships have experienced physical violence by a partner, these messages can be jarring. Taken in isolation, it would be easy to dismiss the Springboks of Erasmus and Siya Kolisi as agents of a morally corrupt ideology.

But these messages are not shared in isolation. So many of the players, including Kolisi, have established foundations with the primary aim of tackling gender-based violence. They’re a team that has used their platform to provide an example for men of all cultures. Through their overt displays of love for each other, as well as the torrents of tears, they have offered an alternate view on what it means to be a South African man.

Watch Chasing the Sun on RugbyPass TV now

Led yet again by Siya Kolisi, the Springboks went on to repeat the incredible feat four years later, going back-to-back in France for their fourth Rugby World Cup title, resulting in the newly released Chasing the Sun 2. It will also be available on RugbyPass TV, from August 1, 2024.

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J
Jon 2 hours ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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