South Africa taking on New Zealand is the final die-hard rugby fans were hoping for. Rucks and mauls aside, the Springboks have tackled bigger demons since the sides met in the 1995 final.
South Africans could hardly watch as flyhalf Handre Pollard converted a late, late penalty in the Springboks’ 16-15 win over England to book them a place in the final against New Zealand.
“It was really intense for all South Africans, let me tell you something! The anxiety was really real for all of us. We were on the edge of our seats,” radio personality and sports journalist Carmen Reddy told DW.
On a wet night in Paris, where nothing seemed to go right for the South Africans, they somehow escaped with a win.
“That is what champions are made of,” said captain Siya Kolisi afterwards.
It’s something Kolisi would know better than most. Not only is his team the defending Rugby World Cup champion, but Kolisi and his teammates have battled through much more than a stoic English forwards pack to reach this stage.
Shades of 1995 final
The last time South Africa faced New Zealand for World Cup glory was the 1995 final at Ellis Park, Johannesburg. That day, the stoic Springboks edged the juggernaut, Jonah Lomu-inspired All Blacks 15-12.
A beaming Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically-elected president, wore a Springbok jersey and handed the Webb Ellis trophy to captain Francois Pienaar. The scene would have been unthinkable just five years earlier: Mandela was in prison, racist laws forbade interracial sport, and South Africa was banned from international sporting events. For many, the moment symbolized Mandela trying to unify a society deeply fractured by apartheid.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the sport of rugby. For decades, only white players were eligible to play for the Springboks, and they were so closely associated with the apartheid system that, even many years later, some South Africans refused to support the Springboks.
Chester Williams was the only Black player in the 1995 side. Transforming the sport remained dispiritingly slow and politically charged. A prevailing attitude was Springbok rugby could either remain the realm of elite sportsmen, or become more inclusive, but not both. Even South Africa’s 2007 World Cup win featured just two non-white starters.
When Rassie Erasmus became head coach in 2018, the Boks were not considered world beaters. But the philosophy around transformation changed: for rugby to have a future in South Africa, it had to represent South Africa’s people, and appeal to the best South Africa could offer. Crucially, only winning could drive support for this. Emphasis was put on giving Black players more game time rather than making up squad numbers, as had often been the case under the so-called quota systems previously employed in the sport. And an elite player development program runs throughout South African rugby to scout and catch talent from all communities.
Transforming strength into wins
If Erasmus changed the direction of South African rugby, then the players pulled through – and how.
In 2019, Kolisi skippered the Springboks to a storming 32-12 win over heavily-favored England, with Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe scoring South Africa’s first tries in a World Cup final.
“Captain Kolisi has become a national hero. I think rugby as a sport has grown even more in South Africa. It’s also now appealing to a bigger audience and to more people because they’re doing so well,” Reddy told DW.
Now, Siya Kolisi’s men can defend their title and become the only rugby nation to win four world titles, edging ahead of the All Blacks’ three.
Sweet-toothed Ox Nche hoping for sweet success
South Africa will have faced every other top ranked rugby nation come the All Blacks clash. But the nation has rallied behind the team like never before. Thrilling wins aside, South Africans have heroes in every position, from speedy try machines Kurt-Lee Arendse and Cheslin Kolbe, to hulking enforcer Eben Etzebeth, to cake-loving, game winning strongman Ox Nche, whose revelations that “salads don’t win scrums” and he “never counts calories, only slices of cake,” has made him a cult hero. The replacement forward pack is affectionately called the ‘Bomb Squad’ for dismantling opposing scrums.
Inspirational skipper Kolisi’s story to become the nation’s first Black captain is well known, but the journeys of young Canan Moodie who defied poverty and gang violence to become a rising Springbok star, and others, have added to the aura of the South African team.
“The idea of ‘look at us working together’ really appeals to two different parts of society, if you’re looking at it in terms of race or culture or background, ” Reddy explains, “but it also gives us a sense of unity in terms of where both you and me, as different as our backgrounds are, we are supporting the same thing.”
Springboks chasing history
South African players have talked about the importance their fans and country throughout, like flyhalf Pollard after the England semi-final: “The fight we showed never giving up, it is what we stand for as a team and as a nation.”
Much has evolved for the Boks since the 1995 final, but the goal, and monumental task, is almost identical: the All Blacks have pulverized all before them since an opening day loss to France. No team has ever beaten the Boks as often as New Zealand. Their last match, a tournament warmup, saw South Africa win handily. But it will count for nothing as rugby’s biggest rivals meet at biggest stage. The pressure is on.
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Yet, South Africa’s current director of rugby Erasmus said after the 2019 win:
“Rugby shouldn’t be something like that creates pressure on you, but rather hope. No matter your political or religious differences, for those 80 minutes you agree on a lot of things you’d normally disagree on.”
The Springboks have provided plenty of hope, not just on the rugby pitch. The team is used to playing for much more than just rugby glory: South Africans are dealing with a crippling energy crisis, rampant crime, mind-boggling unemployment and financial inequality.
“Emotionally and mentally, and people don’t want to really talk about that, [the final] will bring us together in a way that I think we need and we deserve,” Reddy told DW. “South Africa really needs this. I think especially now, just before Christmas!”
So when South Africa comes to a standstill for once for 80 minutes, it won’t be due to power cuts, but a nation caught up in rugby fever.
Edited by: Matt Pearson