How rugby became part of the DNA of South Africans

Springboks, South Africa national rugby union team lifting up the 2023 World Cup. Screenshot from YouTube video, ‘Rugby Analysis | How Did South Africa Win the 2023 World Cup Final?‘ on Black Jersey Analysis. Fair use.

In an exhilarating Rugby World Cup final at the Stade de France, on Saturday, October 27, the formidable Springboks, South Africa's national rugby union team, clinched victory with a thrilling 12-11 win against the All Blacks, the New Zealand rugby union team.

Currently holding the top spot in the world rugby rankings, the Springboks are the reigning world champions, with a record four World Cup victories (1995, 2007, 2019, and 2023). They are only the second nation to secure consecutive World Cup wins (2019 and 2023), trailing only behind their great rivals, the All Blacks, as the second most successful team in rugby history. But the question remains: how did South Africa reach this pinnacle? And how did a team that symbolized the Afrikaner heartland (and apartheid) come to be embraced by South Africans of all colors? 

Before we delve deeper, let’s relive the moment the Springboks became the greatest rugby team in the world … again:

@rugbyworldcup The Springboks go back to back 🏆 #RWCFinal #RWC2023 #rugby ♬ som original – WE ARE 00h.03m 🇨🇭

Rugby holds unparalleled importance in South Africa. It has shaped the country’s history and culture, with the Springboks serving as a symbol of national pride and unity. Nelson Mandela recognized rugby's potential to help lessen divisions between Black and white South Africans and foster a shared national pride. This was a monumental moment in the country's sporting and national story as Mandela inspired the nation to join together before the 1995 Rugby World Cup, as seen in the documentary on CBC News YouTube channel entitled The Real Invictus: How Nelson Mandela united South Africa through sport:

For some, however, the Springbok jersey remains a symbol of the nation's oppressive white minority rule.

History of rugby in South Africa

The system of apartheid in South Africa came into being in 1948, following the rise to power of the Afrikaner National Party, a political party primarily made up of Afrikaners, who were descendants of Dutch, German, and French settlers in South Africa. The party believed in the superiority of the white minority and sought to establish a government that favored this group. Through this system, the white minority controlled all aspects of South African life, politically, socially, and economically, institutionalizing racial segregation.

According to an article by Farrel Evans, this party had a strong connection to the country's rugby team. The team had a history of including only white players for the first 90 years of its existence. The party saw the team's success as its own and sometimes used the team as a way to promote its own members into political positions.

The Springbok gazelle, the rugby team's mascot, had been a symbol of apartheid's National Party since 1906. Black South Africans wanted to destroy this symbol, but Mandela sought a conciliatory strategy to allow Afrikaners to keep it as a means to bring the nation together.

The team made its World Cup debut in 1995 when the newly democratic South Africa hosted the tournament. The 1995 Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand was a significant moment in South African history, symbolizing unity after the end of apartheid.

Fast forward almost 28 years later, and South Africa stands as the reigning world champions, having clinched the World Cup four times, outmatching the All Blacks for the most titles in history. This achievement is particularly noteworthy considering their exclusion from the first two World Cups in 1987 and 1991 because of the country's apartheid system. The Springbok's recent World Cup victories in 2019 and 2023 were led by the inspirational Siya Kolisi, the first Black man to captain the national team. This indicates another significant milestone in the nation's rugby history.

After football (soccer), rugby is the most popular sport in South Africa, with a following of close to 10 million in a population of over 60 million. The popularity of this sport in South Africa can also be seen in the over 804,279 registered players the country has, which is the second-highest globally, following England. 

According to a YouTube video by the Ruby Pod, the dominance of South Africa in rugby can be attributed to the country’s exceptional infrastructure for the game, including excellent grounds, coaching facilities, and opportunities. 

The video also highlighted that, unlike other countries, the South African school, college, and university rugby system is treated essentially as professional, serving as the primary springboard for young players to impress. For instance, Craven Week, initiated in 1964, provides schoolboys with training of a higher standard than regular school rugby, acting as a talent pool for provincial teams. The competition has become a hunting ground for talent scouts seeking the next generation of rugby stars.

The seriousness with which South Africa views rugby is further underscored by numerous dedicated rugby channels covering club, university, and school rugby, alongside professional matches. 

University rugby is also vital, with each university treating it seriously, boasting its own league, house team, age division, and academy. However, South African rugby at every level, from private school pitches to professional leagues, is still predominantly white-dominated in a country that is over 80 percent Black. This racial disparity continues to raise concerns about inclusivity.

Whatever advantage South Africans may or may not have on the field, it is evident that the country is deeply passionate about rugby. It has become part of their DNA throughout history, shaping a unique culture. The country's success on the international stage, especially at World Cup tournaments, has played a pivotal role in unifying the nation and fostering love for the game.

Mandela's influence on rugby in his country is unforgettable. While he did not alter the game or the Springbok symbol, he redefined the meanings attached to them, transforming rugby into a unifying force for all of South Africa — both on and off the pitch.

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