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Boks glory: A team of 57 million people beats 23 professionals

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3rd November, 2019
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The smashing and impressive 32-12 victory by South Africa over England in the 2019 World Cup final represents a triumph of a rugby nation over a rugby team that prides itself essentially on its professionalism.

A rugby team representing 57 million South Africans beat England’s team of professionals.

The Springboks have now won three Webb Ellis trophies in only seven tournaments. This is a remarkable record.

They have never been defeated in a final. They have never even conceded a try in one. What a remarkable tribute to the defensive commitment of the three Springboks World Cup-winning sides.

A turning point surely in the 2019 final was the defence towards the end of the first half when the Springboks held out England near their own try line for 41 phases.

Despite the relentless onslaught from a desperate England side, the Springboks never looked like conceding a try.

The Springboks are now the dominant power in World Cups. This is despite the fact that the All Blacks have also won the Webb Ellis trophy three times.

The three finals victories by the All Blacks were won in nine tournaments, with two them, in 1987 and 2011, in New Zealand. Only one victory, 2015, was won out of New Zealand by the All Blacks.

The Springboks won their first Webb Ellis trophy in 1995 in South Africa. It was the team’s first World Cup tournament.

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But their next two World Cup triumphs were in France in 2007 and in 2019 they won in Japan.

The three World Cup triumphs were achieved with a 12-year gap between successful tournaments for the Springboks. This is a pattern that suggests that so far, at least, it takes two generations of professional players for South African rugby to create a World Cup-winning team.

It may be, too, the serendipity of aligning a specific coach, with a specific group of players, is crucial for a World Cup triumph.

Rassie Erasmus, the abrasive flanker who almost charged down the famous Stephen Larkham dropped in the gripping semi-final in 1999, has proven to be the true successor of Kitch Christie, the master coach of the 1995 Springboks.

Kitch may have built a dynasty with his World Cup-winning squad but unfortunately for South African and world rugby his coaching career was compromised when he was stricken with cancer.

It was Christie who revived the traditional pillars of the South African rugby in 1995: a powerful, aggressive and swarming defence, tactical kicking from the halves, a dominant scrum, and a brilliant, lethal back three.

Given the temper of the times, 1995, the era of the Mandela Revolution, Christie also unleashed the emotional power of a Rainbow Coalition, a spirit of national unity and purpose that harnessed the tribal energies rampant in South Africa into a national crusade.

This combination of the traditional South African power game, on defence and attack, and the fervour of a nation backing the team has proved to be unbeatable in World Cup finals since 1995.

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Siya Kolisi

(Photo by Juan Jose Gasparini/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Rassie Erasmus unabashedly went back to this Kitch Christie legacy of the traditional pillars of South African rugby and Rainbow Coalition nationalism to revive the energise his Springboks to win the 2019 World Cup.

Instead of out-sourcing the coaching of the Springboks to what would in Rainbow Coalition terms have been a sell-out, Erasmus deliberately reached into the knowledge of the South African rugby community.

He then made the history-making decision to give the coveted captaincy of the Springboks to Siya Kolisi, a tough-minded, visionary man, who was born into poverty in a township near Port Elizabeth.

I remember being told in the 1970s by Danie Craven, the great man of South African rugby in the Apartheid era, as a Springboks player, captain, coach, administrator, that “a black man will never play for the Springboks.”

Instead of a Nelson Mandela figuratively being a Springbok wearing the captain’s jersey for the 1995 final, the 2019 edition of the Springboks had the real thing, their captain and a black man, wearing the iconic jersey as literal leader of Springboks.

And after the final, Kolisi made the finest after match speech I have ever heard: “I’m not only trying to inspire black kids but people from all races. When I’m on the field and I look into the crowd, I see people of all races and social classes.

“I tell my teammates that you should never play to represent one group. You can’t play to be the best black player or to be the best white player to appeal to a community: you have to play to be the very best for every South African. We represent something much bigger than we can imagine.”

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After the final, while Kolisi was making these memorable statements, black and white Springboks were hugging and embracing each other.

Then they formed a prayer circle and humbly gave thanks for their victory.

The notion that the Springboks represent South Africa on the rugby field, that the team is not a squad of 23 players but the embodiment of a nation of 57 million people, was a dominant force in England’s defeat.

England’s rugby team, it seems to me on the other hand, is a professional product of its rugby system. It represents the rugby community but it does not transcend this narrow community into the greater community of England.

I am always amazed, for instance, that the iconic song from the stands of Twickenham is historically a black slave song, ‘Swing low sweet chariot.’ What connection does this have with English rugby?

The rugby game in England is London-based, essentially. Very rarely, for instance, is a home rugby Test involving England played out of London.

This is one of the basic differences between the so-called home unions and the southern hemisphere powers, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, countries where Tests are played regularly in their main cities.

England rugby, too, has tended to look after its own commercial interests, often to the detriment of the world game’s expansion. A case in point, is the current unwillingness to allow for a world rugby season and a schedule of Tests that would allow the top teams to play each other every year.

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The business of English rugby is too often more concerned about business than rugby.

This concept of rugby as essentially a business, rather than the South African expression of national aspirations, was behind the argument made by Stuart Barnes in The Times that Siya Kolisi should be benched by the Springboks for the final:

“Kolisi does not only represent black people but everyone in South Africa. The decision should be colourblind.

“I also note how often the head coach refers to the openside (who wears No.6 in South Africa) as “our leader.” And yes, sport and politics are not so much mixing as totally entwined.”

Barnes, like most English reporters, just does not get it.

An inclusive Springboks side, ‘something much bigger than we can imagine,’ is a cultural and social artefact. It is an exemplar for what South Africa must aspire to and achieve to be the vibrant, creative and inclusive society that is the hope of its people.

The Barnes commentary has no understanding or empathy for the aspiration that the Springboks, at their best, represent the best or should represent the best elements of a born-again South Africa.

This is why it was absolutely essential from both playing and emotional reasons that a black player, Siya Kolisi, captained the Springboks at the beginning of this weekend’s World Cup final.

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Siya Kolisi

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

As well, this lack of understanding of this truth by Barnes is a reason, I believe, why England has failed so regularly in World Cup tournaments.

England has lost three finals and won only one final.

England, with the most players of any country, and based in the financial capital of Europe, is cash and assets-rich. The union is run more like a business than a rugby union.

But where is the soul of the English game?

The coaching of this squad that lost the final was out-sourced to two Australians and a New Zealander. No expense in preparation and other backup staff was spared in the quest to win the Webb Ellis trophy.

The England players, too, were on the highest bonuses of any team, even higher than the Wallabies, if they won the World Cup tournament.

There is a sense in all of this that the World Cup could be bought like some business transaction.

When Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler and the coach Eddie Jones refused to wear their runners-up medal, I had the sense that they were telling us that that the business transaction had failed.

The gesture, it seemed to me, treated the loss of the World Cup final like a failed take-over bid, which these players and their coach were prepared to just walk away from.

In many respects, this Springboks victory is a replay of 1995, the famous Rainbow Coalition victory inspired by Nelson Mandela.

The doctrine of social inclusion for all groups in South Africa, indeed, is a common factor in both the 1995 and 2019 triumphs from a motivating point of view.

And the elemental power of the Springboks game replicated the same intensity of the 1995 final.

There were a couple of differences between the two triumphs, however.

This time there was no Jonah Lomu to hold in check. This meant that the Springboks defence could concentrate more on the middle of the field rather than on a specific opposition player playing out wide on the wing.

As well, the Springboks identified a weakness in Eddie Jones’ coaching history that has not been exposed or exploited for some time, namely a general disregard for scrumming power.

In his early days as the Wallabies coach, for instance, Jones was regularly criticised for spending only a handful or so minutes on scrum practice.

In this sense, the victory at Tokyo in the 2019 final based on the power of the Springboks scrum represented a blast from the past.

The use of scrum power to win a Test dates, historically, to the third Test between the All Blacks and the Springboks at Eden Park in 1937.

The series was tied at one Test win each. The All Blacks had never lost a Test series in New Zealand.

This was an era where a team could decide to have a lineout or scrum if it was their ball for the re-start.

It was an era, too, where the Springboks, having invented the 3-4-1 scrum, could devastate any team on earth with its powerful shoving.

The Springboks received a message before the Test from Paul Roos, the iconic captain of the 1906 Springboks: ‘Scrum, South Africa, scrum, scrum, scrum.’

The first time, the All Blacks put the ball into touch, the Springboks captain, Philip Nel, told the All Blacks: “We’ll scrum, New Zealand!”

South Africa won four scrums in a row. And from the fourth scrum, the Springboks scored and from this famous try went on to secure an historic series victory.

You could write virtually the same sentence about the Tokyo World Cup final.

The first four scrums produced penalties to the Springboks.

The Springboks were able to win 11 scrums, without conceding a penalty.

England won three scrums and were penalised virtually every other time the scrum was feed.

This overwhelming scrum advantage by the Springboks produced the penalties that allowed Handre Pollard to kick six penalty goals.

Handre Pollard

(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Although the English rugby writers have dismissed the final as a dull affair, it had, in fact, a sort of Shakespearean drama about it.

There were so many stoppages for injured players that the field seemed to replicate the stage of a battlefield drama.

Shoulders were jarred out of their sockets with friendly (in the case of Kyle Sinckler) and unfriendly fire. Even a player like the seemingly indestructible Duane Vermeulen, the Player of the Match, was injured like all the other mortal players.

Having smashed England in the middle of the field and in the set pieces for the first hour of the final, the Springboks went for the jugular by unleashing their lethal wings, centre and fullback.

The result was two dazzling tries.

The first was scored by Makazole Mapimpi, after some brilliant running and passing by the excellent centre, on defence and attack, Lukhanyo Am.

Mapimpi, a star of the tournament, scored six tries in six games, the most in the tournament, along with the Wales wing Josh Adams.

Mapimpi is 29 years old and is the most improved Springbok this season. As a youngster walked 10k to school. Last year, as a late bloomer, he was selected for the Springboks and has scored 13 tries in his first 12 Tests.

Then there was an absolutely sensational try in the 74th minute by Cheslin Kolbe.

The smallest player on the field, and one of the smallest in the tournament, Kolbe simply streaked away from the tired and dispirited England defence, to cap off a brilliant finish for the Springboks.

Having bored the world against Wales, and exposing themselves to a potential defeat by incessantly kicking away the ball, the Springboks honoured the final and their own great tradition by attacking with the ball in hand when they sensed England had become vulnerable.

The quality of their running can be gauged by these statistics from the match: England ran 201 metres from 123 carries. South Africa ran 369 metres from 89 carries.

What are the lessons of this tournament?

The main feneral assessment is that in this current World Cup format, matches won and lost in the pools stage can prove influential in deciding the ultimate victor.

Japan’s defeat of Ireland in the pool rounds was a decisive factor in the final outcome of the tournament, and so was South Africa’s loss to New Zealand in the pool stages.

These two results meant that the Springboks had a much easier route to the final than England.

In the knock-out finals, the Springboks had to defeat Japan and then Wales to make the final. These were about the easiest hurdles any team could hope to jump over.

England had to defeat the Wallabies and then the All Blacks to get to the final. This was a difficult set of knock-out matches for England to contest.

It may be that England prepared too hard for their brilliant victory over the All Blacks, to the detriment of their preparation for the final against the Springboks.

It may be, too, that tiredness was a factor in England’s pathetic performance in the final.

But all this, in a sense, is immaterial.

The Springboks managed their campaign by growing game by game. They were a much more formidable team at the end of the tournament than they were at the beginning.

They had a way of playing that allowed them nothing easy, no cheap tries.

They developed an unbreakable defence as the tournament unravelled.

And, thankfully for the spread of rugby as a world game, they re-established their traditional abrasive game, on defence and attack, for the final.

Their dazzling finishing in the last 20 minutes of the final were among the greatest moments in a tournament replete with great moments.

Springboks

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Before the final, the eloquent Siya Kolisi tried to sum up his feeling about how the contest would unfold and what winning the World Cup meant to his country:

“I was very young in 1995 and I don’t remember anything about that game other than the images I have seen. It was definitely beautiful to see the videos and images and I got to experience it in 2007 when I watched the final and saw what it did for the country.

“It is big back home. I haven’t seen this much support since I’ve played for the team. The president was speaking about it in parliament asking the whole country to wear Springboks jerseys today.

“We know how much rugby means to our country and now we have different races in our team and I think that is our strongest point. We have the country behind us which is something huge.”

So congratulations to the Springboks, a team of 57 million people.

And to Danie Craven, eat your heart out.

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