The truth is the Springboks just want it more
No other side with realistic ambitions at next year’s World Cup has struggled as much against their rivals as South Africa. Since lifting that famous golden trinket in Japan three years ago, Siya Kolisi’s charges have lost four of their seven games against New Zealand, England, Ireland and France. Factor in three defeats to Australia and another to Wales and the forecast is not an encouraging one less than a year from their title defence.
And yet, there is cause for optimism. Despite the near-misses over the last two weeks, the obvious deficiencies in key positions on the park, and their director of rugby’s inability to refrain from tweeting nonsense, the side has a secret weapon.
Last week in Marseille they put in their best performance since thumping England to become world champions for a third time. They were a man short for 46 of the 80 minutes and still came within touching distance of beating a team many have tipped to claim their crown on home soil next year.
Once Pieter-Steph du Toit was rightly red carded for a reckless – but, in my mind, wholly accidental – head charge on Jonathan Danty, the Springboks were not only playing with a man disadvantage, but had to contend with the vaunted French pack without one of their linchpins.
Until that point, Du Toit, World Rugby’s player of the year for 2019, was instrumental in marshalling a rush defence that was posing a unique challenge for the French who have for so long grown accustomed to generous time and space. More than once Romain Ntamack received the ball on his heels rather than his toes and were it not for a brilliant kicking display from Thomas Ramos, South Africa would have overwhelmed their hosts in the early exchanges.
Cards are so often the difference at the sharp end of elite rugby and Du Toit’s sending off looked to have consigned the contest to a formality. Shortly after, Cyril Baille burrowed over from close range for the opening try and a rout was on the cards.
Instead, the Springboks rallied. Their seven-man pack started winning the arm wrestle. Willie le Roux stepped up from fullback and began running the show at first receiver. Faf de Klerk’s box kicks were pinpoint. Eben Etzebeth grew in stature as he underlined his credentials as the best second rower on the planet. Three different goal kickers slotted every attempt at goal.
Something happens to a South African when you tell them that there is no hope. There are many reasons why this may be the case and no doubt sociologists, psychologists and economists would all have sound theories to prove this argument.
Perhaps it is the fact that the country was founded by colonialism, was forged in bloodshed and continues to be gripped by violence. But that doesn’t quite work. South Africa is not alone in this regard and other national sports teams don’t have nearly as much steel as the Springboks.
We can’t put this down to any specific cultural traits. It is a myth that South Africa is one united nation. It is in fact multiple nations where nine official languages are spoken in a land that, were it not for British and Dutch settlers, would be divided according to these native tongues. You’ll find them mixing in small pockets known as towns and cities, but venture beyond the sight of high rise buildings and you’ll find a world that is less homogenised than the politicians would have you believe.
So, what is it then? What compels this team to reach deeper when resources are thin? What is it that allows them to keep the engines churning long after the reserve light has flicked on?
It might sound trite to those of you not from the country but it’s really quite simple. I’m certain that no other rugby team on the planet feels as obligated to win as the Springboks. No other side feels as tethered to the triumphs and laments of the people they represent. This might seem like marketing guff fabricated to promote documentaries and sell replica jerseys, but look any one of the players in the eye and ask them yourself. To a man they will tell you that they are performing their duty with zealous fervour.
Of course this means nothing if the other team is simply better at playing rugby. All the gees (spirit) in the universe won’t diminish the potency of Antoine Dupont or the composure of Johnny Sexton. But it might turn a seven-man pack into a force that belies logic.
‘Wanting it more’ is a cliche in sports the world over. That doesn’t mean we should dismiss it out of hand. Rugby is a game where wanting it more might actually be the difference between winning and losing. Tackling another human being, especially a very large human being, requires bravery and self-sacrifice. When you’ve managed to convince yourself that you’re performing that task for something that is more important than gainline advantage then you’re more likely to hurl yourself into contact with little disregard for self perseveration.
The Springboks are masters at forging a narrative that turns the world against them and them against the world. Like wounded soldiers defending a surrounded fort, they rally together and fight til the last. Again, this might seem like a sleight of hand and a trick of the mind. But listen to the language the players and coaching staff use when talking about what motivates them. They have convinced themselves that winning World Cups goes beyond their remit as athletes. They’re providing a service to a country that has little cause for joy elsewhere.
This is why recent results should be noted but not used as a cold fact that the Springboks won’t win next year’s World Cup. They’re on the wrong side of the draw and even a victory over Ireland in the group stage would see them face either France or New Zealand in the next round.
The bookies will have them as outsiders. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
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