This Springboks' loss is a blessing in disguise
Fans of the Springboks won’t be happy to hear it, but the team’s one-point loss to Wales in Bloemfontein is not only a positive for world rugby, but also for the development of the South African game as well. And though the sting of defeat will pinch sharply, the lasting impacts could shape this reverse into a pivotal moment on the path to the next World Cup.
Let us first acknowledge that the 23 Jacques Nienaber selected was not his A team. Yes, any group of men wearing the famous green and gold is representing a brand that regards victory as a non-negotiable. And yes, there were star names littered across the field that were capable of carrying their compatriots to a higher level.
But let’s not allow ourselves to get swept up in forced romanticism. Any squad that includes six uncapped players and 14 changes from the previous Test has to be seen for what it is – an experiment, a work in progress, a Hail Mary shot that something might stick.
Had Wales lost to this group it would have underlined just how far the organisation had fallen. Their first ever win on South African soil does not plaster over a disastrous Six Nations, the board’s fragmented youth infrastructure or a calamitous showing in the United Rugby Championship, but it is a milestone worthy of praise. No caveats are needed for this historic achievement.
There is, however, an argument to be made that scraping past such an experienced outfit is further proof that Wayne Pivac cannot get the best out of his charges. But a defeat might have been terminal, if not to his job 14 months out from the World Cup in France then at least to the faith in him shown from the Welsh public and the players.
This win breathes some life into a spluttering giant. Wales might not have the resources of South Africa and England, but they are a global force. At least they have been in recent times. Schadenfreude is a powerful emotion and one frequently expressed concerning rugby matters but Wales is an integral part of the rugby ecosystem. The game needs diversity and a range of would-be champions. If this boost kickstarts the project then we all have cause for celebration.
As for the Springboks and their loyal supporters, this defeat is the reality check they sorely needed. It has been a golden period for South African rugby. A World Cup win, a Lions series triumph and two finalists in the inaugural URC. Success breeds success but it also breeds expectation.
The Springboks are held to a higher standard than any other institution – sporting or otherwise – in South Africa. They embody a particular breed of South African masculinity that does not take a step back, that confronts challenges with a square jaw and an iron fist. Is it any wonder Trevor Nyakane and Bongi Mbonami have both compared the opposition’s scrum to a home invader trying to do harm to their families?
This is why it hurts when they lose. If our bravest and strongest can succumb to foreign bullies then what hope do the rest of us have? The Springboks are portrayed, and proudly portray themselves, as defenders of the nation. They win despite the rolling blackouts, the murderous crime rates, the rampant unemployment and corrupt politicians. They win even under the cloud of a pandemic and World Rugby’s draconian mandates. They are the beacons in the darkness. The righteous among the damned.
When they win it is easy to conflate their victories with some moral justice. Siya Kolisi is not just a rugby player and inspirational captain of a well-oiled team. He is a warrior prophet fulfilling his preordained destiny. If that seems hyperbolic, go and watch the scenes of the 2019 World Cup victory parade. Those tears shed by South Africans of all races and creeds were not merely the crescendo of their joy. They were visceral signs of a country relishing a rare explosion of ubiquitous joy.
And with every success the narrative calcified. It’s a narrative connected with Nelson Mandela and his rainbow idealism. It is a narrative connected to colonialism and the continued insecurity that pervades the collective psyche. It is a narrative that inflates the significance of mauls and scrums and line-outs to the point where their outcomes say as much about the worthiness of South Africans as they do about the credentials of the Springboks coaching staff.
Josh Adams’ late try put a dent in the mythology. It bloodied the nose of a heavyweight not accustomed to lying prone on the canvas. There have been other losses in recent times – against Australia, England and New Zealand – but this one was perhaps needed. If South Africa’s second-stringers could roll up and roll over Wales’ best, that confidence might have morphed into hubris.
The more pragmatic rugby observers might have predicted a tough afternoon for the South Africans on Saturday, but there were many among us who had the home side as favourites despite the personnel changes.
Andre Esterhuizne struggled to replicate his bulldozing heroics with Harlequins and Handre Pollard failed to shine behind a pack bereft of its usual grunt. Jaden Hendrikse at scrum-half was the one fresh face who advanced his cause. Everyone else outside of the regulars might have woken up this morning and questioned their future in the side.
That is a positive for South African rugby. Winning Tests shouldn’t be easy. And for a team that enjoys “playing in the gutter”, as several players have said, a defeat is just what they needed. Now with a grievance as fuel, they should be back to their best next week.
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