Rugby Union, as opposed to its cousin Rugby League, is the second most popular sport in South Africa – after football. Contrary to their soccer counterparts, the South African rugby team has been one of the most successful teams of the sport’s history. The Springboks, as they are affectionally nicknamed, are two-time World Cup winners and have featured some of the most iconic names and stories of Ruby legend.
Like much of South African culture, the sport has been influenced and affected by the racial politics of the past. However, the success of this ethnically diverse team has also had a hugely positive influence on bringing the nation together are many years of division.
A Long History
Rugby was first played officially in this country in 1861 and the first nationwide tournament was hosted in 1889. The game was extremely popular among all sections of the population, despite the lack of funding and official competitions for non-white teams.
However, in response to global pressures on the Apartheid era government, the Springboks were banned from international competition by the International Rugby Board in 1981. The only form of competitive rugby the South African team participated in for over a decade were friendly matches between them and New Zealand.
The All Blacks, as the NZ team are commonly known, and the Springboks have long had a friendly rivalry going back as far as 1928. This tradition continued throughout an era which saw South Africa become somewhat of a global sporting pariah among the international community.
By 1991 however, the post-apartheid regime was gathering momentum and by 1992 a new and unified non-racial South African rugby board was formed. That same year they were allowed back into the Union and swiftly competing on the international stage once more.
Champion Springboks: Uniting a Nation
By 1995, a resurgent South Africa was selected to host the Rugby World Cup of that year. After breezing past Western Samoa and France in the knockout stages, who else would be awaiting the hosts in the final but their old rivals – New Zealand’s All Blacks.
There were several things that the made the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final special. For one, the two teams had been incredibly high scoring going into the game. The All Blacks Jonah Lomu scored four tries himself in their semi final against England, with the team accumulating 315 points over four games. Yet, the tight South African backline kept the rampant New Zealand team in check during the final – with not a single try being scored during the game.
Not only that, but both sides points were all scored by one player each. New Zealand’s Andrew Merthens scored three penalties and drop goal for his team’s 12 points. However, it was The Springbok’s Joel Stransky who stole the show with 15 points from three penalties and two crucial extra time stop goals. With SA running out the game as three-point winners, Nelson Mandela would hand the Webb Ellis Cup to Springbok’s captain Stephen Pienaar in incredibly emotional scenes at the Ellis Park Stadium. South Africa would go on to become one of Rugby Union’s most legendary sides, winning the World Cup again in 2007.