The Springboks are not the competitive force they used to be, but as they kick off their fall international in Dublin on Saturday, they have renewed hope for tackling the problems that have plagued them since returning to the world of rugby 25 years. back.
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Twenty-five years ago, on a sunny winter day in Johannesburg, South Africa’s isolation from world rugby ended amid the slow death of apartheid. When the all-white Springboks faced the All Blacks, Nelson Mandela was out of prison for two and a half years. Another 20 months passed before Mandela became president, but he already wielded real power and generosity of spirit.
Mandela argued that the South African rugby world cup team, a stronghold of apartheid for decades, should be allowed to retain its “Springbox” name and its traditional green and gold shirts. The great man realized even after 27 years of imprisonment that the country needed to shake off its anger and prejudice. However, his support was not universally approved, and the political problems reflected in the prelude to that historic test still taint rugby in a divided country.
Issues of race and transformation dominate any discussion about the state of South African rugby, from the grassroots to the national team. Even though the Springboks have reached incredible heights since that day in 1992, their shares have fallen. The once exciting battle between the Springboks and the All Blacks has turned into an abyss. Before the whistle was blown on 15 August 1992, South Africa had beaten New Zealand 20 times and lost only 15 times to them. Today the record is 57-35 in favor of New Zealand.
When François Pienard lifted the Rugby World Cup at Ellis Park in 1995, the idea of South Africa losing to Japan in the 2015 tournament seemed impossible. Few Springbok fans could have predicted that so many of their players and coaches would be doing their thing outside of South Africa, and in some cases against it. And the idea that racial divisions would still undermine rugby two decades later could only embarrass all those who celebrated the “new South Africa”.
However, when the Springboks arrive in Europe for the fall national team games, glimmers of hope are once again palpable. Next Wednesday, November 15, World Rugby will vote to endorse South Africa’s surprise appointment as host of the Rugby World Cup 2023 by a tournament review panel, giving South African rugby another chance to address its painful issues on and behind the pitch outside.
This news for South Africa, if the recommendation is ratified, is encouraging, especially after a humiliating 57-0 loss to the All Blacks two months ago. This shocking result made the leading figures of South African rugby think even more deeply about the difficulties already so evident on that frosty August day in 1992.
Permission to continue playing was given by Mandela and the African National Congress on the condition that Die Stem, the apartheid anthem, was not played and the old orange, white and blue flag was not flown. That match made an incredible splash, recalls Dan Retief, a veteran South African rugby journalist. Louis Lute insisted on playing the old anthem. Die Stem thundered and old flags fluttered. I got cold. I remember comparing it to a Nazi youth rally. He again showed rugby as a white right-wing game that did not reflect the country as a whole.
“Dani Craven decreed that we would always come back against our greatest rivals. It showed our arrogance. We played New Zealand, Australia and then toured France and England. Typical South Africa! The Springboks narrowly lost to the All Blacks [27-24], but this game put rugby back in the public eye.”
It’s interesting to talk to two former springboks who played in the 1992 test. Peter Muller, who made his debut at center, says: I was only 23, so playing for the All Blacks was a little scary and I had mixed feelings about the sound of the anthem. On the one hand, you wanted to sing your anthem, but at the same time you knew the difficulties. But you have seen the pride of people crying while singing. So it was quite emotional and we were being carried by 80,000 people in the old Ellis Park.
Naas Botha, the captain of the Springboks and the mascot with his huge boot, was 34 years old. He was on a violent tour of New Zealand in 1981 when anti-apartheid protesters clashed with police. Botha, now an outspoken expert, says: I have never been one of those involved in politics. Yes, we had that incident with the anthem, but if you look back at what we have achieved in the last 25 years, it really worked out really well.
It is true that South Africa have won two Rugby World Cups since lockdown ended and under Nick Mallett in 1998 they set a world record of 17 consecutive Test wins. Italy beat them for the first time last year and in any case, the challenges of South African rugby are inherently political.
Even South Africa’s greatest triumph in rugby, winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup, was political in nature. The images of reconciliation captured by Mandela in a springbok shirt as he celebrated victory over New Zealand in the final matched the fleeting ecstasy of the “rainbow nation”.
“The Rugby World Cup brought the nation together and there were great scenes of black taxi drivers dancing with white fans, Mallett agrees, but I remember thinking, This is not the reality of South Africa. The next day, the privileged and the rich went back to the suburbs, while the poor and the unemployed returned to their neighborhoods. So it masked the problems we encountered later.”
The 1995 Springboks team included Chester Williams. A man of color Williams was a dynamic wing that made the team on merit. But five years later, Mallett realized that he had to accelerate the transformation – in response to government pressure, and also because it was important to open up opportunities. He selected Owen Nkumane as the first black African to play for Springboks when South Africa toured the UK and Ireland in 1998.
Nkumane played several games in the middle of the week and looked below the required standard. His playing career faded into obscurity and he made an equally difficult transition as a black man into the white world of the South African rugby media, where he is now a popular commentator and interviewer.
White fans booed his choice, but Nkumane saw the bigger picture. I was surprised when I was selected, he says, but some of us played for the South African under-20 team. We were on tour just for the experience, but it was still a moment of pride. I remember walking down a London street and a South African stopped me and said, You’re doing this for all of us.
Integration issues continued. Two years later, Tando Manana became the third black springbok and hit the headlines when, unlike Nkumane, he abandoned the initiation rituals he saw as epitomizing Afrikanerism. During a tour of Argentina, he would not agree to be beaten with a pool cue or drunk with a concoction that included sweat squeezed out of socks worn by his fellow springboxes. Manana indicated that, being a Xhosa, he was initiated in adulthood.
“I come from the Eastern Cape, the birthplace of black rugby, says Manana, and I really like the color of my skin and I love my culture. Nick Mallet stopped the initiation, but after he was fired, she returned. I stood my ground. I didn’t mean to belittle myself. It was the first time someone had refused and it made world news.”
But I was right to resist. For the reconciliation of our cultures, it was important that we respect each other. If they take a stick and hit my buttocks until I can’t walk, will that make me proud to be a springbok? Of course not. It was a barbaric act, and I chose to call for unity and racial reconciliation.
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Manana was certain that his career would suffer because of his refusal to comply. Definitely. We were made to feel inferior to others. But it’s not. His new book, Being a Black Springbok, explores the passion many black South Africans have for rugby. While the government is pushing for at least half of the Springbok team at the 2019 Rugby World Cup to be black and coloured, Manana says not enough is being done to bring about change at all levels.
You have to embrace transformation across the board. Craven Week showcases the best of high school rugby and has never been played in a black town. This year it took place in one of the best private schools for whites, despite the fact that 50% of the players were black. Surely the administrators can do more to bring rugby to a new audience?
“It all starts with a change in our hearts and minds. In the current Springboks configuration, you have the black players sitting in one corner and the white guys in the other corner. We need them to sit together under the umbrella of unity.”
Manana believes that until a cultural shift occurs and the old racial divide is wiped out, black players will often still be considered quota figures. Definitely, Manana says, acknowledging exceptions. Brian Habana, the all-time leading scorer in Springbok history with 67 tries in 124 tests, is a superstar and Tendai Mtawarira, a libertine, has become a cult figure after 95 tests.
As a journalist, Retief spoke out against apartheid, but as he now emphasizes, racial sentiment means that objective criticism is not always possible. People deny that the quota system still exists, but it clearly remains. And if you criticize a black or colored player, it is seen as racist and you get crucified on social media.
But I don’t know how else we could do it, because we had to find a way to attract black players. Too bad it’s 25 years old. Our coaches cannot choose a regular team. They must take into account the fact that we need a racial quota because we were a country of apartheid, the worst form of racism. We are still trying to fix this.
The task caused controversy. Mallett is now South African television’s leading rugby analyst and he acknowledges the general dissatisfaction. The transformation has caused anger and frustration in the Afrikaans community because they feel that many of their players are being overlooked and forced to go abroad. And a lot of blacks and people of color think,
“Wait, we don’t always get the chance to show our abilities in positions where we’re as good as you. colored boys play super rugby. But not in a lock or hold-down support. These are positions where the difference between the best white player and the best black player is huge.”
He still believes the government’s goal of having 50% black and non-white players on a test team by 2019 is feasible, even if no other team in the rugby world faces such a challenge. Ideally we would like to just select the best players, but the transformation is part of South Africa and even now you can get close to that 50% mark.
But trainers and breeders didn’t use their brains. We even chose a white scrum half, François Hougaard, on the wing, like Allister Coetzee did last year. It was a bad decision because we have some great black wingers. It was a real slap in the face for any competitive black player.
And when you look at full-backs, we have three players, Dillin Leydes, Warrick Gelant and Andris Coetzee, holding the position. They have similar abilities. I think you should give the black player a chance, because you are not going to weaken the side.
“If we look at the full-back, both wings, the far center, where Lionel Mapo is very good, the four wingers can be taken by really strong and technical black players. We have Elton Junjis in 10th place and the Beast of Mtawarira is doing a great job. Six out of 15 is not a disaster in terms of transformation. In fact, you are only looking for one more player who will actually receive 50% for 2019. But Hogaard’s decision was insensitive and shows a misunderstanding of transformation.”
The goals of the transformation have been controversial. In 2015, preparations for the Rugby World Cup were derailed when the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Kosatu) called for the dismissal of then-coach Heineke Meyer due to a lack of choice of black players when only Habana and Mtawarira were selected in the match day XV.
And with all the possibilities offered by winning the 2023 bid, this was only allowed when the South African Rugby Union ban on tournament bids for failing to meet transformation goals was lifted weeks before the bid deadline.
Botha laments how the transformation is being used to justify the demise of the Springboks rather than focus on declining skill levels in South African rugby. I have never had any complaints about the way forward. This is the new South Africa and for rugby to grow you have to get everyone involved. I’m just fed up with people saying that the problem is with the quota system.
Absolute nonsense. We don’t lose because of quotas. We lose because we don’t play well. I was watching the semi-final of the Curry Cup [provincial competition] and half of the guys couldn’t even catch the ball. For more know about South Africa Rugby World Cup Tickets.
White players and coaches are still being lured to the northern hemisphere or Japan as the ailing rand cannot compete with the euro, pound and yen. There is now a consensus in South African rugby that the best coach in the country is based in Gloucester. In his four years with the Lions in Johannesburg, Johan Ackermann turned a decrepit team into an exciting team.
The Lions have appeared in the last two Super Rugby finals and Ackermann’s job was to ensure that the South African Rugby Union offered him a contract. Mallett even suggested to the union that Ackermann and his assistant, Swiss de Bruyne, work with Coetzi, and after the 2019 Rugby World Cup they could take charge. This succession will replicate New Zealand’s long-term planning.
On a cold weekday evening in Gloucester, a heated debate about South African rugby rages 6,000 miles away. Ackermann also confesses his confused feelings on moving to England. There were mixed feelings about me, my family and the people who support me. And I’m not deaf. You hear people say it’s sad to lose me.
But other people are right in saying that if I improve my coaching skills with this new experience, we will all benefit from it. I was very emotional leaving Lviv because I had such a connection with everyone. I could have lasted another year since I had a contract and hopefully we’ll be lucky a third time and be able to win the Super Rugby title. But it’s time for a change.
Did the union talk to him about the possibility of becoming a Springboks coach after Coetzee? No. I was grateful that they gave me the opportunity with South Africa A. But there was no talk of a process after 2019. I can only make decisions now, so it was either Lyons or Gloucester.
It’s not like they give me any choice and say, We’d like you to participate in some capacity, and we’ll reevaluate in four years. Look at the All Blacks. Steve Hansen was an assistant for eight years before becoming head coach. He has been looking good for 12 years. I would bet money on their next coach being his assistant Ian Foster. So it would be nice if the South African union saw me as someone who could be involved. But I can’t force it.
In addition to exhausting players and coaches, Muller believes: We have failed on many levels. Management and administration were in disarray. In 2008 I was part of the SA Rugby Legends organization and we coached for five years in the Cape Flats.
About 20 schools played rugby on the Cape Flats before lockdown ended in 1992, and when we started, no more than three schools were playing. We revived the game because we helped schools of color play national tournaments. We have developed this whole program, and I am glad that the union has built on our foundation. Now there are 20,000 kids playing on the Cape Flats.
Manana is more concerned that the personality of next year’s Super Rugby team coaches reflects an old pattern. The Lions will be coached by the white Swiss de Bruyne. The Stormers will be coached by Robbie Fleck, a white male. The Sharks will be coached by the white Robert du Pre. The Bulls will be coached by a white man, John Mitchell. There are no black assistants. Where are the black people? Nowhere to be found.
Deep structural problems remain. There are not enough professional players to support the 14 unions, each with equal voting rights, and steps are being taken to reduce the structure to eight or nine provinces. But it is unlikely that the smaller unions will abolish themselves by vote.
At the same time, changes to Super Rugby mean the Cheetahs and Southern Kings from rugby centers Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth are now forced to play Pro14 against Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Italian teams. It is not surprising that against the backdrop of fractures, the Springboks struggled.
After being embarrassed at 57-0, Mallett said, Criticizing this Boca team is like clubbing a baby seal. Up until the 57-0 defeat, we had a pretty good 2017. We had a very inexperienced captain and we also saw the inexperience of the coaches. They had no idea what to do when they were under such pressure from quality. For more know about Ireland Rugby World Cup Tickets.
For Retief: In all my years of playing rugby, this was the worst day ever. Poor old Allister Coetzee said he saw some positives, but it was terrible. Then we played New Zealand again in Cape Town and everyone was celebrating because we performed with such tenacity. I’ve been writing about rugby since 1970, and it used to be completely foreign to a South African fan to rejoice in defeat. But it showed that we can still play tough, uncompromising rugby where our strikers dominate. We tried to be more expansive, but sacrificed the corridor and the fight, where we are traditionally strong.
“Mullet was excited, but stresses that South Africans are always excited for a one-time violent game. New Zealand can play at a high level much more consistently thanks to their coaches and leadership. We need a do-or-die scenario to replicate that intensity.”
This Saturday, the Springboks leave for their last trip of the year to Dublin. After Ireland they play France, Italy and Wales. I have no trepidation, Mallett says. It’s a pity that we have Ireland, the most difficult game, the first one. But French rugby is not the best, and this year we beat them. We have to beat Italy by doing the basics. A victory over Wales is indeed possible. Three wins out of four would be enough. If we get four out of four, we’ve turned the corner.
There will be more suspense in the first two games because Ireland and France are suffering from the likely loss of the right to host the Rugby World Cup 2023. South Africa is in dire need of positive political and economic news, Mallett said. So that’s a huge incentive. We had an outstanding bid and the presence of Cyril Ramaphos and our Sports Minister Tulas Nxesi confirmed the government’s strong support.
Whenever I’ve talked to Manana, he seems to be engrossed in workshops or meetings to rebuild the game. During our first interview two weeks ago, Manana seemed pessimistic that there would be significant changes in South African rugby over the next 10 years. But now his renewed optimism for the Rugby World Cup 2023 seems profound and allows us to look forward, not backward, to a wounded past.
Fortune favors the brave, he says enthusiastically. For me, it shows our fighting spirit and that we can still draw inspiration from Nelson Mandela. I believe that South Africa has the perseverance and determination to host a Rugby World Cup of this magnitude.
If we get it, the real test will be whether this Rugby World Cup can unite rugby for a long time. Thus, winning the tender is only the basis. The premise should be to put on a great RWC and also heal the game in South Africa and make it accessible to everyone.
There have been times in recent weeks when my head, even as a South African, felt ready to explode with conflicting arguments. It’s sad to continue playing paint by number 25 years after lockdown, but the 34-man South African team on their current tour has 15 blacks and people of color.
On what may have been a damp and dark Irish autumn day this Saturday, these young South Africans of different colors will join hands to sing their revised national anthem in five languages - Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. It is a hybrid of an anthem, but also one of the most beautiful national songs. New hope for South African rugby will be repeated again.
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