GAVIN RICH: Boks play out of their skins at World Cups to unite a fragmented nation
Duane Vermeulen sums up motivation in last episode of documentary series on win in Japan
The final episode of the documentary series on the Springbok World Cup win in Japan, Chasing the Sun, left me feeling similar to how I felt at the culmination of the journey in Yokohama exactly one year ago today — emotional and feeling a bit bereft that it was over.
Hopefully the storyfied format adopted for the five-part series that was shown in a prime-time slot on M-Net these past five Sunday nights, and that will still be available in its entirety on catch-up if you haven’t seen it, is the start of something that SuperSport will repeat. This was real storytelling, the way it should be done.
I’d exhort anyone interested in what happens behind the scenes and, more particularly, what has driven SA success at three Rugby World Cups, to watch the unfolding story. It does go to the heart of the matter, which I have long felt is the emotion inspired by the nationalism that drives the Boks once they’ve progressed to a certain point in a World Cup campaign.
Duane Vermeulen summed it up when the final episode focused on the long, sustained England attack near the end of the first half of the final that the Boks somehow repelled: “We felt like we were defending our country.”
That sums up why the Boks, once they get to a final, are so hard to beat at a World Cup. They have something that no other country could hope to replicate, and which the former All Black coach Graham Henry remarked on after visiting the Bok change room when John Smit’s team won the 2009 Tri-Nations.
The All Blacks, like most top rugby players, will tell you they play for the jersey, but at a World Cup the Boks play for something much bigger than that — they play to unify a fragmented nation, to give people a reason to feel uplifted in what otherwise is a tough environment. They are inspired by a nationalism that players from other countries won’t be able to relate to.
Today you are not representing yourself … today your body doesn’t belong to youRassie Erasmus, Bok coach
Playing for the Queen, which I suppose would be the “outside rugby” inspiration for the England players, can’t possibly equate with playing to make your country a better place, or even to save it. Which was a driving motivation not only in 2019 but in 1995 too and in 2007.
This might seem an incendiary thing to say, but the 2007 team was probably the only one you might have backed beforehand to win the tournament on ability. Several players in that team were either already the best in their positions in the world, or were poised to become the best in the years that followed.
The other two occasions it was a case of either still being a work in progress, which the current team probably still is, or the team making up more than the sum of its parts through sheer resolve, great leadership and, yes, the nationalism that lifts the Boks when rugby’s greatest prize is on the line.
It is an attitude that is exemplified by the speech we saw Rassie Erasmus make to his players before that epoch-making game 12 months ago, the one in which he spelt out to the players that “today you are not representing yourself ... today your body doesn’t belong to you”. That if you were down on yourself if you made a mistake in this game you were arrogant and had too much ego.
It wasn’t a speech that was necessarily completely new or unique. Scotland captain David Sole said something similar to his team before they played, and beat England, in an epic Five Nations decider in 1990. But then that speaks to the point I am making. The Celtic nations probably are fuelled by emotion when they play England, and while Scotland lose to England more than they beat them, they definitely punch above their weight against their hated rivals.
Sustain the emotion
Yet in the same way that Chasing the Sun brought home so emphatically why the Boks are so good at World Cups, with three wins in just seven appearances, it may also have given us a hint about why they don’t carry that success into the non-World Cup years.
That the Boks have only won four of the 24 southern hemisphere international competitions played since the start of the Sanzaar era may be down to the fact you cannot sustain the emotion that shone so strongly through last night’s final episode every season and for every game.
Mark Andrews once told me that he didn’t feel that the first World Cup-winning coach, Kitch Christie, would have been able to sustain his winning momentum outside a World Cup year, when the “ambulance job” and “supreme fitness and discipline” mentality would have been difficult to keep replicating.
The former most-capped Bok was probably right. The Boks tend to produce when rugby becomes more than a game, which it can’t be all of the time. Erasmus is a good coach and so is Jacques Nienaber, and I am sure we will see the technical and tactical elements that took a back seat to sheer physicality and bloody-mindedness in Chasing the Sun coming to the fore, to the extent that the current Bok team could progress to what the 2007 team became in 2009 — the undisputed best rugby team on the planet.
But in 2019 they were inspired by something that went beyond rugby and which, in retrospect, made England no-hopers. Playing for the Queen and her corgis simply can’t equate to playing to save your country.
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