The three regular readers of this blog will know that I have a great love of the sport of rugby. Since 1994 I have been a massive supporter of the South African national team, the Springboks, and the Blitzbokke, the national side that plays in the shorter form of the game, Rugby Sevens. I will be at Twickenham next weekend hoping that the Blitzbokke will do better than last year when they lost in the quarterfinals to England.
As a child, brought up in a family which opposed apartheid, I supported the touring New Zealand side when they toured South Africa. At the Test Match in Cape Town, I must have been one of the only white persons present who was supporting the All Blacks. Every black person there, in the racially segregated ground, was supporting the tourists. I recall being hit over the head with an umbrella by a large Afrikaner and told to shut up when I cheered a New Zealand score!
(As an adult I would have opposed the tour itself, breaking as it did the sport and cultural boycott of the apartheid state, but I was too young to make that call at that time).
It wasn’t until after Mandela was elected President that I first supported the Springboks. In 1994, supporting the Springboks was not uncontroversial I would recommend the amazing book by John Carlin, ‘Playing the Enemy’, for a comprehensive account of the complexities at that time. (The book became the basis for the film, ‘Invictus’, entertaining though it was, it has nothing on the book).
There have been highs and lows being a Springbok supporter since 1994. Winning the World Cup in 1995 was, undoubtedly, the high water mark, not just for South Africans, but for people around the world.
The exchange between Mandela and the Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar, is one of the iconic moments of sport and a defining moment in Mandela’s presidency. “Thank you for what you’ve done for our country, Francois,” said Mandela as he presented the William Webb-Ellis trophy to Pienaar. “No, Mr President,”replied the Afrikaner Pienaar, “thank you for what you’ve done for our country”. Such an exchange would have been unheard of even a year earlier.
The low point happened right here in Brighton, in the 2015 World Cup. I was there as Japan scored their winning try in the 4th minute of extra time to cause the biggest upset in international rugby history. I have written about that game here.
In 2017, I found myself standing next to Francois Pienaar at baggage reclaim at Cape Town International Airport and we spoke about the Japan game. I said I had been traumatised for about two weeks. Pienaar said he was still traumatised by the result.
Why am I writing about rugby today? Today it was announced that Siya Kolisi will captain the Springboks in the forthcoming series against England and so becomes the first black South African to captain the Boks. It is a great day for Kolisi himself and for South African rugby.
(As a footnote, I’ve been thinking about why I never played for the Boks. Other than not being able to tackle, hated being tackled, having no sense of tactics, having the physical attributes of a lamppost, not being able to kick, and hated scrumming, I think I had everything to make a great player).