An article by Ian Kilbride.
Can they, or can’t they? Can the Springboks go all the way and retain their William Webb Ellis rugby world cup trophy? In statistical terms, the Boks have an excellent track record in the tournament. Besides being one of only two teams to have won the trophy thrice, (the other being New Zealand), South Africa has the highest title win rate (42%) and is the only team never to be beaten in a final.
Together with the late great Jonah Lomu and Julian Savea, Bryan Habana holds the record for the most tries scored in a tournament with eight and shares the record with Lomu for the most tries scored in all rugby world cup tournaments, with 15. In the kicking game, no South African can hold a candle to All Black Dan Carter or England’s Johnny Wilkinson, but SACS old boy, Percy Montgomery, is up there in third place with 22 conversions in one tournament (2007). Handre Pollard is second in penalty goal conversions with 39 and he will be sorely missed this year in France. 1999 was a forgettable tournament for the Springboks, but we all remember Jannie De Beer’s record of five drop goals against England. South Africa also bookends another title with the oldest and youngest players to win a rugby world cup in Schalk Brits (38 in the 2019 final) and Francois Steyn (20 years in the 2007 final).
The Springboks go into the 2023 tournament on the back of a record 35-7 victory against the old enemy, New Zealand, and a 52-16 thumping of Wales. Prior to this, however, the preparatory record this year was patchy, with a win against a disorganised Australia and defeat to New Zealand.
But a key advantage in South Africa’s favour is continuity, both on the field and in the coaching staff. With few exceptions, the Boks who beat England in the 2019 final are fit and in the current squad. The biggest boost comes from the return to fitness of captain Siya Kolisi, supported by the giant and maturing presence of Eben Etzebeth, the impish Faf De Klerk at scrum half and a backline brimming with talent.
Along with coach, Jacques Nienaber, the mercurial Springbok Director of Rugby, Rassie Erasmus, has provided rare continuity, particularly as a coach at the highest international level. This is in sharp contrast to the ‘new’ coaching appointments of England and Australia for example, the re-appointment of Warren Gatland to the Wales job and Michael Cheika as the Argentinian Pumas coach.
Yet, the odds are against the Springboks. New Zealand go into the tournament again as favourites, followed by home boys France. From the way France performed in this year’s six nations, it’s hard to see how the Gallic Roosters will not put the hugely partisan home crowd advantage to good use. The impressive Irish (ranked number one in the world) enter the tournament as solid fourth favourites, followed by Australia and England. With respect to the latter two old enemies, Australia has an exceptionally young squad with a lot of improvement ahead of it. Lamentably, the same cannot be said of the under-performing England.
But there’s something more than physical prowess and tactics at play here and that is national pride. As mentioned, France enters the tournament with confidence and huge national support. Paradoxically perhaps, expectations of New Zealand are slightly lower than usual. So, it is to the reigning champions that we must look for that extra something that can make the difference between just competing and winning. Recall that, along with enormous home country advantage, national pride was certainly the determining factor in South Africa’s first championship victory in 1995. Of course, the All Blacks still bemoan the fact that their squad came down with food poisoning the night before the final. But is it really plausible to blame dodgy South African biltong for Joel Stransky’s magical extra time drop goal? As Naas Botha once commented, cowboys don’t cry.
No, there’s something more to Springbok rugby than brute force and physicality. It is seldom as skilled as the Australians, or as complete as the best All Blacks teams, it doesn’t possess the gallic flair of the French, or exude the devil may care running rugby of the Argentinians. But what we do have in buckets is national pride. And here’s the rub. Excluded for so long from international sport and indeed the very first rugby world cup because of apartheid policies, Springbok rugby had historically represented the epitome of ‘white’ sporting prowess and Afrikaner power. And it has taken over a generation to change this racial exclusivity elite to blend into what is now a team that, on merit, is representative of the excellence in our society in all its colours, cultures and hues. It is this that gives us the edge and makes today’s Springboks world beaters.
Looking forward to the tournament, as their national anthem says, “Scotland are the brave”, but come Sunday 10 September, 60 million South Africans will be bound together in wishing the boys in green and gold the ultimate rugby world cup success.