As the embers of the 2023 Rugby World Cup lie in the hearth, those bearing the name of the Springboks glow brighter than any other.
A nation often divided but always unified by their beloved Boks, South Africa have come under criticism for their conservative game-plan, with many suggesting good fortune aided them on their World Cup journey.
World champion and all-time great David Campese gives Planet Rugby his view, and it might not be quite what you expected.
Claims made in New Zealand
“Well, it’s quite interesting when people make a claim like this. There was a lot of speculation after the World Cup and there were a lot of headlines, especially in New Zealand, about South Africa and if they’re destroying international rugby,” Campese said.
“I think if you’ve lived in South Africa from 2004 to 2018 as I did, then you realise the South Africans have been through hell and back in terms of what they’ve gone through socially and politically.
“When Rassie Erasmus became coach, his back story is compelling. He was watching the Springboks around 2017 or 2018 and he saw how dejected the South African supporters were.
“He said: ‘I don’t like this and we need to change it. Rugby unites our country and without that, our culture and our national identity suffers’. He said: ‘the fans are the country not the team, it’s our incredible fans and they deserve better’.”
“If you think about going back and have a look at the last month of social media, the amount of things put on by Bok supporters is incredible,” Campese said.
“I mean, there’s a young South African two or three-year-old talking about (Siya) Kolisi and how he passes the ball, with demonstrations! Put simply, they understand the game. If you go into a taxi in Jo’burg, the driver will have a view on the best starting loosehead or where to play Damian Willemse. They’re not part time watchers, they are steeped in knowledge and culture.
“When you go into those close games, the difference between winning and losing is so fine. But when you’ve got a country of 65 million people behind you, knowing that they are supporting you as a team and knowing the culture and history, then that takes you to places as a player you didn’t know existed. Make no mistake, their fans are part of their 23 and it’s amazing to see.
“By contrast, let’s look at England. They were very lucky to get to where they were and the game against South Africa, England refused to entertain. They slowed the game. They didn’t embrace their support or read the room and until they do that in the way South Africa do, then the interest of the sport will decline. It’s exactly the same in Australia too.”
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Campese’s experience in South Africa
“I was fortunate to coach in Durban with the Sharks and the talent there was staggering. JP Pietersen, Percy Montgomery, Andre Joubert, a young Francois Steyn. What struck me was how well developed these guys were as athletes and in their understanding of the game,” he said.
“South Africa is a very, very passionate country when it comes to rugby – they’ve got rugby, cricket and football in 65 million people of all different races. It was eye-opening for me being involved in the team. you had Xhosa people, Zulu, Afrikaans, English, Cape Coloured and so many different nationalities in one team but, despite issues between the cultures off the pitch, rugby united these people.
“I was comfortable knowing that I had some serious skills and intellect to work with. We used to have fun; just run the ball. I’d say, ‘do your thing and express yourself, this is your culture,’ and because of that deep understanding, they embraced my approach. South Africans are very passionate about rugby and they want to learn and improve – and be the best versions of themselves for their mates around them, with teamship an important ethic for them.”
“Going back to the World Cup, winning the tournament is all about mental strength. If you think, in 1991, we played Argentina Saturday, Tonga Wednesday, Wales Saturday, Ireland Wednesday, New Zealand and then in the final, England,” he added.
“There’s no Portugal or Georgia in between back then and games were every three or four days. We were all gone by the time the final came around and however big the motivation to win is, let me tell you that you’re shattered by those last two weeks and it then becomes about mental strength.
“In 1991, we were exhausted after the All Black match in the semis, but we got to play another game. And that’s why the final wasn’t great – we were very lucky to win that game and England were as knackered as us. But we won. Nobody cares about what the score was as long as you win.
“So, when you look at the Springboks you see this mental strength. But what you also see is a team that understands the game inside out and back to front, one bonded by the importance of the Boks to their national identity, that unites an often unsettled nation.
“Are they killing rugby? Are they hell! They play the game we all want to play, they have the support and culture many teams kill for and their mental strength and self-belief defines their brands. They are a magnificent team, iconic in stature and their status as world champions is nothing more than their brilliance and fortitude deserves.”