The birth of a new attitude

Rugby Union World Cup: Douglas Rogers explains why South Africans are ready to rally round the new flag
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THREE years ago, when South African rugby returned from more than a decade of isolation, the Springboks played New Zealand and Australia on successive weekends. They followed this with a six- week tour of France and England, thus taking on the world's four best teams in three months. lt was a demanding itinerary made more remarkable by the fact that almost every white South African thought they would win.

Their disastrous results are burnt on the minds of every Springbok fan - South Africa narrowly beat France in one Test but lost the others. lt was the rudest of awakenings given what rugby means to the average white South African.

lt has always been more than just a game here. Although the black and coloured populations in the Cape have traditionally played rugby, Afrikaners have long regarded it as "the white man's sport". "Rugby was the one area where the Afrikaner could show superiority," said the present Springbok manager, Morne du Plessis.

The years of isolation protected the myth of superiority. Remember two South African supporters running on the field at Twickenham in the last World Cup with a banner proclaiming their absent team as "Unofficial World Champions"?

Most South Africans genuinely believed it. After all, the Springboks had beaten a string of touring rebel teams during the years of isolation. "It is the arrogance of the Afrikaner," the South African rugby writer Dan Retief explains. "They have this laager mentality that it is them against the world. Some of them truly believed they could beat Australia and New Zealand on the same afternoon. Coming out of isolation and seeing how far behind they were was quite a shock."

Fanatical fans may have found the results hard to swallow, but for those South Africans looking forward to the new democratic era, it was the manner of the Springboks' re-entry into world rugby that was more unpalatable. Before the New Zealand international at Ellis Park, the South African RFU president, Louis Luyt, ordered the playing of "Die Stem", the Afrikaans national anthem, in defiance of the ANC's wish not to have it played. lt was an insensitive and arrogant re-assertion of the old order.

Without the ANC's blessing, the tour would not have taken place and as a result of the anthem debacle, the Newlands Test against Australia was put in jeopardy. Mluleki George, a former Robben Island detainee and now the South African RFU vice-president, recalled: "We were moving towards a united South Africa in 1992 but there was still this arrogance among white people that rugby was their sport. Most blacks at the time would have been quite happy to see them lose. We were definitely still stuck in the old days."

The tour of France and England that followed was an even bigger disaster. lt laid bare how far South Africa had regressed, not just in terms of the game, but in terms of relations with the outside world. An old-guard management and a team comprising largely fading stars from the Eighties was chosen.

Somehow South Africa won the first Test in Lyons but went on to lose the last three games of the French leg as the gulf in standards became apparent. But instead of accepting the results, the captain Naas Botha accused referees of cheating, the players openly sang "Die Stem" in their hotel and the tour disintegrated into a boorish display of petulance and rudeness.

lt culminated in the management leading a walk-out of a commemorative dinner for Serge Blanco when the French Barbarians team arrived late. The Springbok manager proclaimed he did not care if the walk-out caused an international incident. Thankfully, the tour turned out to be the last hurrah for old attitudes and beliefs.

For the 1993 series in Australia, the former Springbok Jannie Engelbrecht was chosen as manager and Francois Pienaar, the epitome of a gracious, modern Afrikaner, as captain. South Africa was moving into a new era and the changes signified an overdue break with the past. "The difference was remarkable," Retief said. "Here was a manager who made the players accessible and friendly. He insisted they did not speak Afrikaans in the company of Australians. They became humble, polite and charming - wonderful ambassadors for their country."

The change was evident on the recent tour of Britain and Ireland, and suddenly this new, open attitude off the field was mirrored in their style of play on it. Traditionally, the Springboks have played a conservative 10-man game based around large forwards and a fly-half with a howitzer kick. Now they play a creative and expansive running game using a lightning- fast back row and dazzling three-quarter play.

But the changes have gone far beyond the sport. On the UK tour, one image stands out: a group of Afrikaans supporters from Pretoria standing outside the gates at Murrayfield before the Scotland international practising the words of "Nkosi Sikelel' Afrika", the black national anthem. Three years ago, this would have been unthinkable.

The former Springbok hooker Uli Schmidt, who once remarked that blacks should not play rugby but soccer, admitted to having had a conversion himself. "You have to adapt if you want to survive in this country. I think we should soon have a number of black players in the Springboks."

Surprisingly, he even grants that the Springbok side he played in against the All Blacks and Australia in 1992 was arrogant and ill- prepared. "When we played Australia and New Zealand, David Campese and Sean Fitzpatrick said we were arrogant, and, looking back, I suppose they were right. You have to believe you can win but we weren't ready then."

Certainly, Pienaar's side believe they can win but this is based on conviction rather than arrogance. Some South African supporters may still wave the old flag over the next month, but they will be heavily outnumbered.

Yet the most significant change in the sport has to be seen through its growth among black players and supporters. Given that rugby was the sport of Afrikaner domination, it is hardly surprising that football is by far the more popular game. Although Ellis Park, venue for the World Cup final, was built for rugby, only football games there regularly sell out. But there are signs of new black interest in rugby.

"I still feel pockets of racism when I'm at a game," said Simphiwe Tshabalala, a black Johannesburg attorney. "But then again, three years ago I would never have considered going. Most of my friends are more interested in soccer, but I've seen coaching clinics in townships and rugby is catching on."

Tshabalala believes hosting the World Cup can only improve the image of rugby in South Africa, and it is a shame that Chester Williams, the dynamic black wing, will miss the tournament through injury. One only has to see the admiration held for him by both black and white supporters to realise how colour blind the game has become. Williams's influence has had a big effect on underprivileged players.

Last year a South African Development XV comprising mostly black and coloured players made a concurrent tour of Britain with the Springboks and won all five games. Western Province, one of the leading provincial sides, have three coloured players, and even in the conservative heartland of the Western Transvaal, whites and blacks now play side by side - another image that would have seemed ludicrous only three years ago.

Perhaps Mluleki George, a former scrum-half, best sums up the transition. "In the past, blacks always supported touring teams because the South African side represented apartheid. That's why I enjoyed the 1974 British Lions tour so much. But now it's different. There is still a small group of Afrikaners who think rugby belongs to them but most players of today's generation see themselves as representing all South Africa. For the first time, the whole country will be behind the Springboks."

Comments