Growing up, a hope of mine was that people would become more together, not less together. The world of 2021 is perhaps more divided than it has been in recent memory, with much hate and disrespect.
Sadly, it appears this extends to rugby as well. I am talking about the vindictiveness with which pundits and fans alike try to rip apart teams and individuals.
This is by no means restricted to any one team or individual: the All Blacks cop it from all and sundry, the Wallabies have got it from certain South African scribes, and of course there was that video.
In recent times however, one team stands above all others in being a recipient of nastiness: the Springboks. And I cannot understand why.
Reading and hearing what people say and write about the Springboks reminds me of what some of my female friends say about the workplace.
‘You have to be pretty, but not too pretty. Smart, but not so smart that you’re smarter than us. Likeable, but not more popular than us. Tough, but not so tough that we can’t hurt you’.
In rugby terms, this becomes kick, but only when I the pundit think you should kick. Score tries, but only when you’re between three defenders. Tackle, but allow the defender to get over the gain line. Play to your skill set, as long as that’s the same skill set as my team.
And I just don’t understand it.
What sets rugby apart from other sports is its diversity. It is a game for all shapes and sizes, all backgrounds and stages of life. And there are many strategies that can be employed to play the game.
There is a certain beauty in how the Springboks play: precision in the tackle, trust and understanding in their defensive units, athleticism across their whole squad, vision from both their coaching staff and playmakers, and resilience, both mental and physical.
They do the set piece better than most sides. They are fit and well drilled, and almost fanatical in their refusal to allow teams over the advantage line. How can rugby purists not appreciate the skill set required to do all that?
They do not play like the Pacific Island teams, the All Blacks or the Wallabies. Although they could if they wanted to.
No hail Mary passes here, no shifting the point of contact from first receiver. No running the ball 80 metres to a try line. And that’s actually okay.
In fact, I posit it is more than okay: it is necessary. It is necessary that rugby has a diversity of approaches to playing the game, because even a game plan based on running the ball all the time is the definition of one-dimensional.
The Springboks are, for the most part, humble in victory and gallant in defeat. They are tough and uncompromising on the field, but by all accounts gentlemen off it.
They are hardly the devil’s spawn many commentators would have you believe. Let’s remember that.