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There is a photograph that hangs in stadiums, pubs, homes and even boardrooms throughout South Africa. It shows President Nelson Mandela, wearing the green and gold Springbok rugby jersey, congratulating Francois Pienaar, the team captain. The year was 1995 and South Africa had just won the World Cup in their first attempt at the tournament.
It is a profoundly symbolic image. The once-reviled leader of an outlawed terrorist organisation had put aside decades of discrimination and imprisonment to celebrate the triumph of Springbok rugby. Rugby, and the almost brutal relish with which it is played in the country, epitomised the power of the white Afrikaners, who ruled South Africa from 1948 to 1994.
Mandela’s gesture was both magnanimous and clever. The president had offered the hand of reconciliation and presented South Africans with a vision of the future: a united and peaceful country where anything was possible.
Twenty years on, much of that hope has faded. The economy is struggling, unemployment hovers at around 25 per cent, one rand is worth just five British pence and violence haunts every community. State corruption, nepotism and incompetence are believed to have reached epidemic proportions. Perhaps most dishearteningly, the Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank, has reported that only 39 per cent of South Africans feel that race relations have improved.
“Winning the World Cup in 1995 was fabulous,” says Luke Alfred, author of When the Lions Came to Town, the story of the 1974 British Lions’ tour to South Africa. “But it was also unreal, a fantasy. It all happened in a bubble and gave rise to so many unrealistic expectations.”
Alfred, a Johannesburg-based journalist and broadcaster, feels that labelling South Africa as a failing country is lazy and uninformed.
“South Africa is a vital, multi-faceted and interesting place,” he says. “Are we going backwards or is the country finding painful ways of growing up?”
While the country’s economic outlook has foundered, its rugby remains potent. South Africa won the World Cup for a second time in 2007 and enter this year’s tournament ranked third in the world.
“Rugby still has the power to unite,” says Alfred. “And when played against the country’s troubled background, success in the World Cup is very important for the nation.”
What has changed for the better since 1995 is the support rugby receives from black South Africans. Popular black players such as Bryan Habana and Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira have inspired countless township boys to take up the game.
Visit any shopping centre in South Africa on a Saturday morning and you will see dozens of black people in replica Springbok rugby jerseys.
“Many more black people are behind the team now,” says Simnikiwe Xabanisa, a Times Media Group rugby journalist in Johannesburg. “And a lot of black guys understand the game far better than many white blokes.”
For some however, and particularly for the government, the pace of change in traditionally white sports such as rugby and cricket has been too slow. During the cricket World Cup this year, Kyle Abbott, the team’s in-form pace bowler, made way for Vernon Philander — a phenomenally successful black player, but who had suffered from an injury during the tournament. South Africa lost the semi-final match to New Zealand, and immediately there were grumblings about political interference in selection.
In some quarters, there has even been talk that this year’s rugby tournament is South Africa’s last realistic chance of victory. Measures taken to include more non-white players and the lure of lucrative overseas contracts will, some claim, entice many of the best players to give up on the national team.
The South African Rugby Union insists that there are no quotas and that each player will be there on merit. Whatever the make-up of the side, South Africa should have no trouble winning their pool, which includes Scotland, the US, Japan and Samoa. It is at the quarter-final stage that their worries begin, when they will meet England, Australia or Wales.
While England have not beaten the Springboks since 2006, they will be a formidable proposition on their home ground. Wales have fared better, beating their visitors in Cardiff last year. In the opening round of this year’s Rugby Championship, Australia beat the Springboks with a last-minute try. Should the Boks survive the quarter-final, the world’s best side and defending champions New Zealand await them in the semis.
“Before we start worrying about New Zealand or Australia, we have to win our pool,” says Heyneke Meyer, the Springbok head coach. “People will write off the so-called smaller teams like Japan and the US, but I don’t see it that way. The Japanese have superb influences from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand these days and a great coach in Eddie Jones, while rugby in the US has been on an upward curve. Then we also have Scotland and Samoa, traditional rugby nations who can beat anyone on their day.”
In 2010 Scotland did indeed beat the Boks 21-17 at Murrayfield, but such a shock result is unlikely to occur this year. What worries Springbok supporters is the age of the squad. Most of Meyer’s core players have long since passed 30. Captain Jean de Villiers is 34, scrum-half Fourie du Preez is 33, while lock Victor Matfield, at 38, is the oldest man to have worn a Bok jersey.
“Eleven players who won the 2007 World Cup are in the 2015 training squad,” says Xabanisa. “Meyer obviously values experience and they have the nous to defend a lead. But can such a side chase a game when they’re 20 points down with 20 minutes left on the clock?”
But Meyer insists the selection of Handré Pollard at fly-half and Jesse Kriel and Damian de Allende at centre demonstrates the Boks’ attacking abilities. “Pollard and Kriel were still playing under-20 rugby last year, while Damian is just 23,” he says. “They represent a very exciting Springbok future. But you also need cool and calm heads to close out tight games.”
There could be some merit in Meyer’s outlook. Against Australia in July, the Boks finished the game with eight players who had fewer than 11 Test caps — and surrendered a 20-7 lead.
It is unlikely such an inexperienced team will take to the field against Japan on September 19. Rather, a dominant display would set the tone.
“The nature of the World Cup suits the South African mentality,” says Alfred. “We don’t play a naturally expansive brand of rugby. Rather, backs-to-the-wall defence meshes with the national psyche. The art of tournament rugby is about gaining momentum, and we know how to do that.”
And the Boks will be playing for a united country. The same Institute of Race Relations survey found that 90 per cent of the country’s citizens were proud to be South African. Perhaps Mandela’s vision has not completely disappeared.