Invictus – The Symbolic Springboks

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There aren’t many teams like the Springboks. There aren’t many teams that hold such power over the people that support them, but the Springboks or Boks, are such a team. The team is more than just a sports team. They are more than justĀ  people. They have the power to curb the course of history.

The Springboks are South Africa’s national rugby team and have a place in history alongside the humanitarian Nelson Mandela. The Springbok team have had their times of controversy and their times of great success, but one thing is for sure, the support behind this team is unshakable.

History of rugby in South Africa goes back to 1891 when a touring British Isles side played against very much novice teams. South Africa didn’t have a representative team at the time, so the districts cobbled together teams to play against the British Isles. The tour was a success for the tourists and they later presented a trophy to the best performing side. A trophy that is still very relevant today in the South African domestic competition, the Currie Cup.

By 1902 the popularity of rugby had exploded and members from different areas began to forge teams and improve their skills. In 1906, the first representative side from South Africa toured the United Kingdom and France. This was the time that the Springbok name and emblem was adopted after a meeting with senior members. The green jersey was also used on this tour, a colour that was “borrowed” from a local club.

Things were going well for the Springboks as they undertook tours and hosted many others but soon politics were to play a part in the destiny of the team. In the apartheid era, which was law in 1948, touring teams felt that they had to exclude non-white players to appease the politicians and times. This began to create a lot of animosity amongst people from other nations and soon teams preferred not to travel or host a team that essentially represented an oppressive government.

Some teams still arranged tours but they were officially recognized. The crux of the isolation embargo could be traced back to the infamous flour-bomb tour when South Africa toured New Zealand. In the last test match, a protestor flew over the grounds in a light plane and dropped flour onto the field while the players were engaged in the game. Besides the peripheral demonstrations, this flour bomb protest highlighted the political outrage faced by the South African people and that sport had an important part to play in South Africa’s political destiny.

When the political landscape began to shift in South Africa in the late-80s, things were headed for a massive civil unrest. Nelson Mandela was released in 1991 and apartheid was abolished, which made the world hold its breath. Mandela was gracious in his release and understood that careful calculations needed to be made to avoid an all out civil war. The International Rugby Board, at the time, awarded South Africa hosting rights for the 1995 Rugby World Cup. This would become an event that had ramifications beyond rugby. In fact, Clint Eastwood and Matt Damon have brought the story to Hollywood in the form of “Invictus”.

The Springboks were eventual winners of the tournament, their first World Cup victory, and they altered the landscape of South Africa for a long time after. South Africa has been a top flight team in the rugby world and command respect by all other rugby nations.

The Springboks are currently second on the world rankings, but are still a fair way off from catching the All Blacks. Since 1921, the Boks have had a 67% winning record scattered with some phenomenal records and disappointing lows. The longest winning streak for the team stretches over 17 matches, equal to the All Blacks. This is a feat only seen 3 times in 100 years in the tier one rugby nations.

Some of the recent legendary players that have adorned the green Bok jersey are Naas Botha, Joel Stransky, Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Os Du Randt, Schalk Burger, Chester Williams, Francois Pienaar, Danie Gerber and one of the most respected players to ever play the game, Joost van der Westhuizen. Joost was one of the greatest, if not, the greatest scrum half. He played for the Boks from 1993 to 2003 and collected 89 Springbok caps. His style of rugby was slick, quick and clean. He redefined what a scrum half is expected to do and was a member of the 1995 Rugby World Cup winning team. He has gained a new found respect as sufferer and ambassador of motor neurone disease charities. He suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS and has been confined to a wheelchair since. He has toured the world to raise awareness of the disease and still to this day is welcomed by all with open arms.

The Springboks partake in an annual double round robin competition between New Zealand, Australia and Argentina and other tours that see them host touring teams as well as embarking on tours to Northern Hemisphere teams. Currently the captain is Jean De Villiers, but he will be out of action until September with a serious knee injury so a interim captain still has to be named, but international tours do not take place until June.

They are known for a very abrasive style of rugby and tackle harder than most teams. They are capable of turning over any team in the world and have had the most success against the All Blacks compared to others. The rivalry between the two is based on respect and honour and for the 80 minutes that these two teams knock the stuffing out of each other, they still are able to leave it all on the field and share a drink the change rooms.

The signature style of rugby for the Boks, is to use the powerful forward pack to rumble upfield and then use accurate kicking to pressure the opposition, but now with new laws and the opposition becoming wise to the aerial attacks, the Boks are trying to keep the ball in hand and use big runners to break the advantage line.

The Boks are likely to advance far into the World Cup knock out stages but there are doubts if they are able to win the cup, but, as one All Black has once said, (and I’m paraphrasing here) “it is foolish to write off a wounded Springbok.”
Anything can happen at the Rugby World Cup.