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The Ottomans of South Africa: The 'sick man' of rugby

Heyneke Meyer was a brilliant club coach, so what went wrong at Test level? (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
Roar Guru
20th September, 2015
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3295 Reads

The Ottoman Empire in 1914 was commonly known as ‘the sick man of Europe’, a sign that the once-great power was crumbling.

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The Turks had dominated the Eastern Mediterranean for 500 years, controlling vast swathes of Central Europe, most of the Arab heartlands as far down as Egypt, and had at one stage been knocking on the doors of Vienna and Venice.

By the 20th century all that remained in Ottoman hands outside Turkey was Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine and parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

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» Pumas good, All Blacks great
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» Rugby World Cup highlights
» Rugby World Cup news and opinion

The Ottoman generals pretended to modernise their empire, but in reality, their concessions to modernity were on the surface only. Their understanding of the wider world and potential rivals was extremely rudimentary, and in the end they backed Germany, as they found it inconceivable that the Anglosphere would have the heart and reach to defeat such an organised Prussian military structure. By 1917, all was lost; Turkey still existed (and exists) but it was all on a smaller scale.

Historians debate causation forever. That’s why they’re historians.

But generally, there is consensus that the Ottomans were ‘sick’ because corruption had thrived for too long, at the highest levels, and because there was a lack of central authority, leaving local magnates to oppress and rule without a larger wisdom, and a series of coups and counter-coups flowing from the janissaries robbed the Ottomans of unity and security.

There were warnings, but the Ottomans resisted new ideas, technology, and made only token attempts at reform. Meanwhile, its competitors were relentlessly improving.

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South African rugby has been sick for a while. The corrupting influences of politics, big money, comforting memories of faded grandeur, and fear of true analytics have hollowed out the marrow of the Springbok.

The Bok is sick.

Inconceivable losses to Japan, Argentina, and Wales are in fact, in retrospect, entirely predictable, because South African rugby has the Ottoman Syndrome. Here are some examples.

‘We’re big; huge. We don’t need to study how to be better’
Yes, but 300 Saffa janissaries play abroad; robbing the homeland of vital competitive knowledge and zeal.

‘We are a great power, because we are a great power’
The world never stops competing. Look at any team competing in the World Cup. All of them have five or six guys as strong as an ox, many have legitimate sprinters, and all of them are obsessed with improving, winning, and learning. There is no timeout in the drive to be better.

‘We have great players’
Sure, but they are overplayed, balkanised, at odds, and chafing at the fiefdom-style leadership of unlikable players like Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez. The youngsters know Damian de Allende in 2015 is better than Jean de Villiers in 2015. They know Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager bring more than Matfield.

‘We are a rugby nation’
Not really. Most of South Africa loves soccer more. And why shouldn’t they love soccer more than rugby? This group of old men love to administer rugby as if it is a private club for friends and family. On what planet should a team from Japan outquick a sub-Saharan African squad?

‘No need for quotas; we believe in merit’
Really? What All Black coach could ever survive losing to Ireland, Wales, Argentina, and Japan in ten months?

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It’s time to go to the doctor, admit we are ill, and take the medicine.