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FEATURE 'The Springboks didn't do it for you. They did it for us'

'The Springboks didn't do it for you. They did it for us'
8 months ago

An hour had passed since the final whistle and thousands of people in green stood in the Paris rain. Some were jostling for space as close to the pitch as security would allow, waiting for a selfie with a Springbok or the chance of a handshake. Others were applauding as hulking giants with tears in their eyes applauded back. The rest were simply existing in a moment they knew they’d never forget, clinging to the microseconds as if they were floating debris on an endless ocean, hoping to retain some of the afterglow at the end of a staggering journey.

Where were you when it happened? At the Foresters Arms in Newlands? At Pirates Rugby Club in Johannesburg? At Thavhani Mall in Thohoyandou? Maybe you were at your family home surrounded by loved ones or dancing shoulder to shoulder with expats in some foreign city you’ve since adopted. Wherever you were, this one thing, this one team, connected us all.

Rassie Erasmus
Rassie Erasmus has steered South Africa to an unprecedented fourth men’s Rugby World Cup victory (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images)

Roll your eyes if you like. Scoff. Dismiss the back-to-back world champions as nothing more than scrappers who struggle for fluency outside of the one tournament that matters more than the rest. Chastise Rassie Erasmus for his outbursts. Belittle Jacques Nienaber by calling him a puppet. Ignore the evolution of the team’s attack by emphasising their extra forward on the bench, their work rate in defence and their accurate goalkicking, as if those traits are somehow against the spirit of rugby.

You don’t like the Springboks? Good. They’re not for you. They’re for us. Your hate doesn’t matter. Not to those who believe in their marrow this side in its current guise represents the best of a country which has never once come close to its full potential.

Those who don’t know simply never will. “You need to come and see South Africa to understand,” Siya Kolisi said after the final. But even that won’t be enough. One has to identify as South African, to know the hurt of racial tensions, the isolation of living behind high walls and the fear that bites when you’re driving your car at night. You have to lose count of the number of hungry and homeless people you see every day and wonder why, almost 30 years since democracy was hard won, there are still so many scraping an existence.

The Springboks are indeed a team which loves drama. They want to be written off. They want to be told they don’t belong or don’t deserve what they achieve.

Pieter-Steph du Toit joked the Springboks are a team which loves drama. He was talking about three consecutive one-point victories in the knockouts after smashing the hopes of the host nation, battling back against a country they hate losing to more than any other, and holding firm against the only side they consider their equals. One senior South African journalist told me he was down to his last two heart medication pills after those nerve-jangling epics. Boks fans around the world have each aged around seven years these past three weeks.

But du Toit might have been talking about something else, something just below the surface where the unsaid parts are only heard by those who know. The Springboks are indeed a team which loves drama. They want to be written off. They want to be told they don’t belong or don’t deserve what they achieve. They want to be told their captain is a political selection, their director of rugby is uncouth,  their hooker is a racist and they’ll never win anything with four scrum-halves in the squad or a flanker in the front row. They’re South African. They’ve been told a lot worse. All that doubt is just grist to the mill.

Of course there is a less positive side to all this which must be acknowledged. Despite the bravado and chest thumping, the boasts about how much beer we can drink and how much red meat we eat, South Africa is a largely insecure nation. We crave attention and yearn for respect and adulation from the rest of the world. It’s why we swoon when someone famous from ‘overseas’ says anything vaguely positive about the place. 

Siya Kolisi has spoken powerfully and repeatedly about the impact of his team on the South African people (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s also why a perceived attack on one immediately attracts a swift response from the collective. I felt the full force of Springboks loyalists myself when I called out Erasmus for tweets which carried the whiff of sexism and xenophobia. It is because of their sense of mission the team attracts an almost zealous devotion and compels some people to send death threats to referees and uncover conspiracies which don’t exist when the Springboks lose. If we’re honest, South African rugby fans can be just as toxic as any other group.

Ultimately winning serves as a bulletproof counter argument to outsiders. The Sunday Times can use words like ‘panicky’ and ‘shambles’ to describe South Africa’s win over the All Blacks. The Telegraph can brand the Springboks the ‘most morally compromised team at the World Cup’. French supporters can boo every player and Australian pundits can wonder if the perfectly legal 7-1 bench split will hasten the death of rugby as we know it.

For South Africans this is the requisite salt needed to season the mountains of lamb chops and boerewors which will sizzle over open flames in celebratory braais until January. ‘Keep them coming,’ fans will say as they lick the sauce from their fingers and wait for a second open-top bus parade in four years. ‘You don’t have to like us.’

Maybe it’s all that unquantifiable stuff, the insults and insecurities, the need to prove people wrong and the hope this might make even an iota of difference in a broken country.

So now, as South Africa sits alone on top of the rugby world as the most successful nation in the sport, we can look back on a dynasty which still defies belief. Two World Cups. A British and Irish Lions tour. A clutch of players now firmly in contention for greatest to ever pull on a Springboks jersey. Are we allowed to ask if Eben Eztebeth is correct when he called this cohort the best rugby team ever assembled?

In all honesty, it’s a boring question. Maybe they are the greatest. Maybe it’s obvious  the All Blacks of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter will never be toppled. Maybe the current crops of French and Irish are, pound for pound, better than a side which cobbled together a trio of triumphs after being second best for most of the 240 minutes played. Is that a sign of a great team or the sign of a fortunate one? Is there a difference?

There is a better question to ask. How the hell did they do it? Nienaber was keen to point out his charges had enough talent to go back to back, but that doesn’t explain how they managed to accomplish what is surely the most remarkable run to a world title in any sport. It would be like a football team winning their last three knockout matches with an injury time goal. Or a cricket side lifting the trophy with a hat-trick of final over run chases. 

The Springboks celebrate the peal of the final whistle on Saturday night (Photo by Michael Steele – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Maybe it’s all that unquantifiable stuff, the insults and insecurities, the need to prove people wrong and the hope this might make even an iota of difference in a broken country. Maybe it’s because there’s nothing else that works and this is the one thing we can be proud of. Maybe it’s because of the hungry and the homeless, the isolated and the fearful. Maybe it’s for the chance to come together, for the hope and the hyperbole and the chest pains our wins cause in England and Australia. 

Maybe it’s for the millions of people who would have stood in the Paris rain just to get the chance to thank them for what they mean to us. To thank them for what they did for us. And if you don’t buy any of that, don’t worry. They didn’t do it for you.


David 256 days ago

I don’t really support this northern vs southern hemisphere logic that gets booted about online. I want the mighty Springboks to win, if not them then France, or Ireland.

CO 257 days ago

Jeez, what a lot of waffle. Boks were well beaten by the Allblacks who were robbed.

Louis 257 days ago

Wonderful, accurate piece. Thank you.

Jon 258 days ago

Go Bokke!! Now fix Eskom

Bob Marler 258 days ago

People talk about South Africa, pity South Africa as if it’s Haiti.

The political and socioeconomic problems are a generations’ work to fix and heal. You don’t undo 300 years of damage done by colonialism and Apartheid in 20 or 30 years.

But as a proud South African who has never considered leaving - because this is the most beautiful place in the world and my birthright - there are green shoots everywhere to behold. And the the Springboks are a great example.

In less than 6 years, Rassie, Siya and the team have made the Boks accessible to all South Africans. Even though Madiba wore that 6 on his back at Ellis park - most South Africans did not support them until recently. Fact. Rugby was the sport of the oppressor.

Even springbok fans were poor at supporting the boks through thick and thin. Fair weather at best.

Until recently that is. Since 2019 - the public at large has come to adore this team. They can do no wrong. Even when they lose - the support has been unwavering. It hasn’t always been like that. And now, as the boks appeal to a broader demographic, the talent pool will grow with it.

I watched my alma mater school - a previously all white school - play in a prestigious rugby tournament. Tries galore. Stepping and speed as if there were 3 or 4 Grant Williams and Lukhanyo Ams. Mapimpis. Front rowers and loose forwards with speed and strength that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. And the team had 2 maybe 3 white players.

Race isn’t the most important thing in sport in SA anymore. It used to be. We celebrate success no matter who wears the badge for SA. From Caster Semenya, Banyana Banyana, the Proteas. Talent is talent. Winning is winning.

I love the boks as much as I love my country. They make me proud to be South African.

James 258 days ago

Forget all of the guff and thank your lucky stars that we are all witnessing a quite magnificent South Africa rugby team.Nothing else to add .

Baptiste 258 days ago

“The Springboks play for South Africa”, “they are so humble”, “it’s a great symbol of the unity of South Africa”. This narrative, which could be compared as propaganda, is absolutely boring since 95. The Boks won because their union is in bankrupt and had great lobbyists. And don’t forget Wayne Barnes gate, that scared WR. They don't come close to the ankle of the 10-16’s All Blacks.

Ninjin 258 days ago

Yup that about sums us up very nicely👍

Nool 258 days ago

They did it for All Saffas
Including those in Australia haha

JohnC 258 days ago

Great Article Daniel 👏

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