When South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 2019, I was too overwhelmed, too full of joy, to put it into words. And even now, as we draw closer to the 2023 tournament, and I button down my plans for a trip to France, I’m still not sure how to capture what that game, that team, that victory means to me. I know lots of people find my passion for rugby, and my tendency to get super emotional about it, a bit much. That’s okay. We all have our things that are meaningful to us, and I’ve realised that it doesn’t matter if no one else gets what makes you feel joy. And joy is really what I felt on 2 November 2019. Completely uncomplicated, unmitigated happiness.
Obviously, we had two previous World Cups to our name, but somehow, this one was just extra special. I think it’s because of the journey the Springboks had to take to get to this incredible milestone. We were in such a bad place during 2016 and 2017. Like, seriously heartbreaking stuff. Not just because we were losing, and to teams like Italy, which is obviously not what you want, but because the players just looked so defeated and dejected. They didn’t look like they wanted to be there anymore, and it was just so sad to watch. I could never be one of those so-called fans who turns her back on the team when things get tough, but man it was difficult to try and stay positive.
And then Rassie Erasmus took over. I think everyone was excited about that, but I honestly don’t think we had any idea just how phenomenal he was going to be for the team. The man is literally a genius. I firmly believe that the most important factor is the team culture he created, which continues under Jacques Nienaber. Yes, the actual game plans and strategies were outstanding, but what set him apart is his honesty with the players and his complete commitment to transformation. The players know where they stand, no matter what, and that’s how you get the best out of people. From the darkest days, suddenly, there was lightness and happiness in the team. I saw it immediately when we played England at Ellis Park, and they got the upper hand over us pretty quickly, gaining a 21-point lead early in the game. If that had happened the year before, it would have been over. The team would have given up, and it would have been virtually impossible for them to claw their way back. But not the team of 2018. Sitting in the stadium, you could practically see them pulling themselves towards themselves and deciding that this was not the way the game was going to go. In the end, they won 42-39 – not exactly a thrashing, but a win to be pleased with. A few months later, the Springboks went on to beat New Zealand in Wellington, and that’s when I knew. I knew that something really special was happening with this team, even if they wouldn’t necessarily go on to win every game they played. And I knew that we had a real chance of winning the Rugby World Cup in 2019.
I suppose a lot of people might still be thinking “so what?” I mean, it’s just a game, isn’t it? Maybe in other parts of the world, that’s true. But in South Africa, rugby has so much potential both to unite us, and to divide us. It is something that makes emotions run high and can change the mood of the country so easily. We are so invested in how well these guys do every weekend, that I often feel sorry for them, given the amount of pressure they must be under. We saw the Rugby World Cup victory unite South Africans in 1995, during the difficult transition to democracy, and I would argue that we needed it just as much in 2019. There was so much happening in South Africa that was not good, that we needed the Springboks to bring us that little bit of joy again. Sure, it’s unlikely to change the fact that crime and corruption are everywhere we turn, but if it brings people together, even if just for a little while, it can only be a good thing.
In the build up to the World Cup, I went to the Springbok send off at OR Tambo, and it filled me with so much happiness to see South Africans of every race, age, and gender uniting in their desire to wish the team well. The same happened throughout the competition – pubs and fan zones were full to the brim with people from all walks of life, and on the day before the final, Nelson Mandela Square was teeming with people, all there to sing the national anthem and send the Boks luck. It was just full on Rainbow Nation vibes. That same day before the final, I had said to people at work that they should wear their Springbok jerseys, or something green, if they wanted to so that we could have a little anthem singalong of our own and post it to the organisation’s social media with a message of support for the team. Given that I have a veritable wardrobe of Springbok jerseys, I brought a few extras with me, for anyone who wanted to borrow one for the anthem singing, but also for the game on Saturday. On the Monday, one of the ladies returned her jersey and told me that before that weekend, she had never watched a rugby game. She had hated the Springboks, because of what they represented during apartheid. But because of the vibe that had been created at the office, and the way she heard me talking about the changes in the team, she decided to watch the final. And, according to her, she fell in love. I know people often find my over-the-top enthusiasm for the game, and the team, annoying or inexplicable, but that’s the kind of moment that will ensure I never stop talking about rugby and trying to get everyone to see the beauty in it. Because all I want is for it to bring us together the way I know it can.
Rassie and Siya and the rest of the formidable squad achieved the unimaginable that day in November 2019. I could go on forever about the clever tactics of getting to Japan early, the genius of the bomb squad, and the odds they defied when the lost to New Zealand in the opening pool game, but still went on to win the cup. But this is already far too long. The point is, not only did they win a game no one thought they could, but they did it with the most transformed team South Africa has ever had (and before anyone bleats about politics, every single one of those players was also there on merit), and in so doing, they unified the country. That’s the bigger victory, and why I still can’t watch that game without crying. The scenes of them returning home with the cup, and the trophy tour that followed, were just completely surreal. Imagine what would have happened if they’d been able to play in 2020, and continue to show us how to be stronger, together?
COVID may have robbed us of the chance to see that happen, in 2020 at least, (and of the experience of being in the stadium for the games in 2021), and I feel genuinely sad at the lost opportunities of what should have been our year of celebrations. But nothing can take away the joy we experienced on that fateful day, so I’ll just keep focusing on that as we head into what’s bound to be another exciting season in 2022.