Springboks are poised on the springboard

Success on the field is playing an important role in the development of the rainbow nation,
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The Independent Online
Let's face it, the World Cup is not the most important thing happening in South Africa right now. But in its attention-grabbing way, it might just be the best thing to have happened to South Africa since the new rainbow nation was born.

For this we can thank the Springboks. By reaching tomorrow's final, in which they play New Zealand for the Webb Ellis trophy at Ellis Park, the South African team have given the country - meaning all the country - a cause for pride and pleasure.

That this is shared across the colour spectrum is both true and not quite as true as white South Africa might like. It remains the case that most of the people of, say, Soweto are at best indifferent to the fortunes of the rugby team, their rugby team.

And the South African Rugby Football Union is well aware that the World Cup, brilliant exposure though it has been, is only a start. But if, in addition, it assists in the general task of nation-building, so much the better.

It is extraordinary and wonderful to relate that it really is happening, led by a Springbok squad - white though they be, with the sole exception of Chester Williams - who have reached out and touched everyone.

"One team, one country" is a clever slogan dreamed up by Edward Griffiths, Sarfu's chief executive, which conveniently encapsulates the prevailing mood. So much so that some of the more extreme whites have turned against them. Fred Rundle, spokesman for the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, actually wants the team to lose.

"It's the Mandela team," Rundle said. "Mandela is an enemy of Afrikaners. The players have no national pride whatsoever." Which is proof positive that the Springboks are doing exactly the right thing. Anyway the truth is diametrically different and President Nelson Mandela's very public support for "our boys" has mirrored their respect for him.

"We are very proud to have been a catalyst for nation- building," Morne du Plessis, the South African team manager, said. "We don't want to make too big a deal of it but everyone has experienced that something has happened. Rugby has made a difference in this country."

Du Plessis, a former Springbok captain, has done as much as anyone in South Africa to take rugby out of its laager. Now, as the month-long jamboree draws to a close, Sarfu has picked up the ball and intends to run it into every community in the country.

"We looked at the World Cup as a four-week free advertisement for rugby," Griffiths said. "The challenge if we are to grow as a rugby power is to broaden the base of the game, to bring in people who have felt rugby was something apart from them because they were neglected by rugby.

"What we wanted to do was put the World Cup over as a defining moment in rugby when it would stop being the white game, elitist and exclusive, and rather make it inclusive, a national sport available to everyone."

This would be fairly standard stuff were it not for the grim historical baggage South African rugby carries as the sport of the white, specifically Afrikaner oppressor. The leap that has been made here in the three years since rugby was integrated along non-racial lines and even during the past month of the World Cup has been immense.

"It would be absolutely stupid now to sit there when the World Cup is over and say `we are a national sport, everyone likes rugby', because it's not true," Griffiths said. "It has aroused interest and given us an opportunity to follow up that interest through our development programme to provide fields, coaching, kit."

There have been doubts about the sincerity of Sarfu's commitment to development and it will take a massive investment for rugby even to begin to tap the human resources that exist around South Africa. But there no longer seems to be any reason to doubt people such as Griffiths, or if there were the past month would have been the biggest sham in sporting history.

On the contrary, Sarfu is proud not only that Francois Pienaar's team are in the final but also that by conducting themselves as they have the team have contributed to something infinitely more profound. "It is a healing process for the country if everyone can unite behind the team," Griffiths said.

"That's been true of the cricket team and I'm sure if the soccer team were successful it would be true of them as well. A lot of people are still wary of the new dispensation in South Africa but now they can genuinely say `here we are, all in it together'.

"For a lot of white people it's very heartening to see black people following rugby and President Mandela taking such an interest in the team. It all adds to the feel-good factor and the positive mood, which is vital in keeping up the progress of this country." Perhaps only rugby could have done this.