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Golden generations: The unsung hero who laid the platform for Rassie's 2019 World Cup winners

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Roar Rookie
1st June, 2023
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Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria 1968. Legendary Lions skipper Willie John McBride stands next to his South African counterpart Mof Myburgh in the tunnel before the first Test.

Wanting to make some conversation to break the silence, McBride observed that there wasn’t much grass on the field.

The reply? “We are not here to graze!”

THE AFRIKANER

What enters your mind when asked to picture the rugby-playing Afrikaner man? A tough, aggressive mountain with no pretensions, whose greatest joy is to physically dominate and destroy his opponent on the rugby field. Someone whose favourite meal is steak and whose steak covers the whole braai. Someone whose favourite snack is more steak, dried into strips to be eaten out on the land. Someone who still isn’t used to not being able to take his Swiss Army knife onto a plane.

So far in this series, we’ve looked at how Sir Clive Woodward’s English golden generation rose from a 76-0 Brisbane thrashing, to their 2003 Sydney glory, to the dark depths of Auckland Harbour. Then in our second instalment we saw how perhaps the greatest generation of them all, Richie McCaw’s magnificent All Blacks, managed to sustain their peak for two Rugby World Cups, by seamlessly integrating Dave Rennie’s incredible crops of Under 20s graduates.

Today we’re going to start with something far more deep and fundamental than a mere generation or two. We’re going to ask, what is it about South Africans that made them the intimidating playground bullies of the rugby world well over 100 years ago and what continues to make them so formidable today? You can read this one from behind the sofa.

This article was by far the hardest to write in this series. You might ask how a mere Kiwi can really understand the South African psyche, structures and pathways well enough to do this justice. The answer is that I can’t. What are or were the differences and similarities between the Afrikaners and the “English” South Africans who have also produced many Springbok greats? How about the well established rugby scene amongst other South African races and what did they and the Springboks lose from their long lasting exclusion? So I’ll do my best and try to construct a basic skeleton, but it will be up to you to add the muscle.

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Lukhanyo Am of the Springboks preaprares for a restart with teammates

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

A PIONEERING PEOPLE

The Afrikaner origin story is full of independence, struggle and conflict. Establishing a new colony far from home in a very different land, hewing out a new home with their own hands. Fundamental disagreements with the British after they took over. The legendary Great Trek into the African interior, wars with the Xhosa and Zulu nations who they met there, moving on when the British caught up and exerted their influence. Wars with the British. Always working hard to make a living from the land.

Just like in New Zealand, the tough, physical game of rugby was perfect for this tough, physical nation. It became the national sport and absolutely integral to their society, national identity and national pride.

Development pathways were also well resourced, with a coherent philosophy of how to play the game and the prestige of its great schools tied into their rugby prowess. The alpha males have always been in the first fifteen and becoming a Springbok has been the dream of millions of schoolboys.

Of the major rugby nations with the biggest playing numbers only New Zealand comes close to matching this cultural hegemony from cradle to grave – of course in New Zealand this includes Māori, European and now Pasifika alike. The strongly built pyramids in both countries allow their golden generations to reach so high so often. Overall through history nobody comes close to these two great powers.

Both countries were pioneering nations built by people who had to be physically hard workers with can-do ingenuity. What more can you add to this picture and what are the similarities and differences to New Zealand?

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ISOLATION, TRANSFORMATION AND DIASPORA

Prior to the era of protest and boycott South Africa could lay claim to having the best performance history of any rugby nation. They had an excellent head to head record against New Zealand, winning a test series there in 1937 without conceding any series to them at home. They also won multiple Grand Slams in the British Isles, whereas the All Blacks’ first wasn’t until 1978.

Isolation clearly had a negative impact on performance but with three World Cups in the cabinet since then only New Zealand has been a match for them. Results between World Cups have been well behind the kiwis though.

We now also have the cultures of black and multi-ethnic South Africans to consider in the Springbok story. The country is in an era of transformation and although it’s been a potholed road it would be hard to argue that 2019 World Cup winners like Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi, Siya Kolisi, Bombi Mbonambi and Tendai Mtawarira weren’t there on merit. Rassie Erasmus’ men looked like a genuine one nation team in spirit and Kolisi’s leadership was as practically effective as it was symbolically significant.

It’s also a time when the weak rand has led many South Africans to play for overseas clubs and even the main South African provinces to play in European competitions which clash with the Rugby Championship and its off season. My thanks to Ulrich for pointing me towards ‘Inside the Boks’ on YouTube, where Erasmus explains the benefits of this and how he is handling the player welfare and availability challenges.

Head coach Rassie Erasmus looks on

Rassie Erasmus (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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What are your insights into the impact of isolation, transformation and diaspora on South African rugby?

SOUTH AFRICA’S GOLDEN GENERATIONS

To finish we’ll quickly look at one of South Africa’s many golden generations.

Post isolation these have been textbook and easy to spot, with World Cup triumphs every twelve years. We will focus on the current one and consider how they got there because there are some real lessons for us.

This really is a golden generation. Look at this list of sixteen players aged from 25-29 in 2019, all in or approaching their prime:

Malcolm Marx
Bongi Mbonambi
Steven Kitshoff
Vincent Koch
Frans Malherbe
Lood de Jager
Eben Etzebeth
Franco Mostert
Pieter-Steph du Toit
Siya Kolisi
Faf de Klerk
Handré Pollard
Lukhanyo Am
Damian de Allende
Cheslin Kolbe
Makazole Mapimpi

What a list of players. That’s 12 of the starting XV for the final and half the bench. But who can take the credit for getting them there?

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We rightly praise Rassie Erasmus for his leadership and strategy, but a decent share of the credit should also go to 2012-15 coach Heyneke Meyer. He capped Frans Malherbe, Lood de Jager, Eben Etzebeth, Pieter Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi, Damian de Allende and Handre Pollard in key positions aged around 20-22. That was a great investment into the future by a passionate South African rugby man who perhaps isn’t remembered as a top Springbok coach.

South Africa head coach Heyneke Meyer ahead of the game. Guinness Series, Ireland v South Africa, Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE (Photo by Sportsfile/Corbis/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

South Africa head coach Heyneke Meyer (Photo by Sportsfile/Corbis/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

By recognising and developing the golden generation so young, Meyer ensured that the generational cycle began before the 2015 Rugby World Cup and gave his successors a great opportunity to have a serious tilt at the title in 2019. Add to these seven youngsters the experience of Willie le Roux, Duane Vermeulen and Tendai Mtawarira and that’s two thirds of the starting XV for the 2019 final who were in at least their second World Cup cycle.

These stars were supplemented at the start of the next mini cycle in 2016 by more of the golden generation – Malcolm Marx, Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff, Franco Mostert and Faf de Klerk, plus Lukhanyo Am the following year. That decision helped cost the Springboks two 57 point hidings at the hands of New Zealand and the coach his job, but it was another strategic success. So I’ll also give some rare kudos to the much derided Allister Coetzee who did what he could to maximise the experience of the rest of that golden generation prior to Japan.

Do you think that this cycle peaked for South Africa in 2019? Or do you think that they won the chocolates a bit early in the cycle and could actually peak this year? Especially considering the younger stars like Cheslin Kolbe, RG Snyman, Kwagga Smith and Damian Willemse to whom Rassie gave so much crucial experience in and prior to Japan.

Most of the golden generation are still in their late 20s or early 30s. Do they have too many too old, too tired from long diaspora seasons? Or are they still in their prime?

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By the way, this latter group of players shows that there is always room for at least one bolter in the squad to provide something new to complement the goldens. That was the subject of my first ever Roar article, check it out if you like! I wonder who the bolters will be this year.

NEXT TIME

Today we’ve looked at some of the the deep, historic, primal reasons why South Africa has always been a great rugby nation. Next time we’ll debate how it might be possible for a less renowned country to become great. Can we learn anything from the golden generations of Wales or Ireland? What can they teach Australia as it strives to become great again?

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