For over a hundred years, players who represent South Africa have been called Springboks, and the jersey they so proudly wear is the Springbok jersey; a beautiful jersey to which is ascribed magical qualities. Friend and foe will say: “Pull that jersey over his head, and an ordinary man becomes a different player, a superman.”
Walk through the maze of passages and courtyards that make up the prisoners’ quarters of Robben Island – past the chilly cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life – and through the communal cells of D-section, and you will come upon an open field. It is overgrown now – covered in high green weeds – but otherwise it’s still pretty much as it was when Madiba was here. One side is flanked by a row of benches. Behind the poles is the watchtower that gave the guards a bird’s-eye view of the games. Beyond the far edge, scrubland stretches towards the shoreline. Seagulls screech and the air has a salty tang.
It was on this unremarkable patch of earth that South Africa’s future leaders planted the seeds that were to grow into one of South African rugby’s greatest moments: the joint lifting of the Webb Ellis Cup by Nelson Mandela and Springbok captain Francois Pienaar at Ellis Park on June 24, 1995.
England got the world playing sport. It was the country that took ancient games, standardised them, made them attractive and sent them out via the Empire to the world. But then the 19th century was an exciting period in England’s history. It started industrialising the world, its population increased sevenfold, and it ruled the waves and lots of land besides. The British Empire ruled a fifth of the population of the world and a quarter of its landmass – including parts of South Africa.
The Lions got Test match rugby going in South Africa; in a sense, they were the midwives to the birth of the Springboks, if that is not too outlandish a description for heaving rugby players. For well over a century, the Lions were popular visitors to South Africa – and remain the focus of intense interest in the changed professional era.
Danie Craven did it all. Anything that a rugby man could do, he did; as player, coach, manager, administrator, writer, speaker, academic and thinker, innovator, patriot. Whatever he did, he did fearlessly, with only the good of the game in mind.
Today, the world is a global village – so it is exceptionally hard to comprehend the lengths to which sporting teams were prepared to go in the first half of the 20th century. The British Empire may have been in decline, but the colonies fought hard to maintain sporting links with ‘Mother England’.
Cricket was the great game of the Empire; and football, in its various forms, took a back seat – but not for long in South Africa. At the beginning of the 20th century, rugby football
had pride of place, and rugby produced sporting heroes who were soon to become household names in South Africa. This form of hero-worship reached its height in the 1930s, when South Africa ruled the rugby world.
In 2005, ‘Kapa o Pango’, a new haka, was unveiled by the All Blacks to signal their intent to their archrivals, the Springboks. “Our dominance, our supremacy will triumph,” was the cry of these rugby warriors. The game’s ultimate rivalry, which has spanned close on 100 years, had taken yet another fascinating twist… Long may it continue.
Just nine Test defeats in five decades for the Springboks –
it could hardly get better. And it didn’t.
By 1953, last rounds had been called on many great Springbok
careers. Teams elsewhere had worked out how to play South
Africa. Worst of all: South African politicians were clearing their throats about the need to keep white South Africa whiter than white, obsessing over it as empires crumbled and the rest
of the world rejected racism. These social engineers put extra
pressure on Springbok rugby until democracy, four decades
down the line.
Europe’s first contact with the people of Southern Africa was due to Europe’s desire to get the good things of the Far East at a cheaper price. The Portuguese paved the way, and the Dutch and the British followed. Their journeys took them round the southern tip of Africa, and brought them into contact with the peoples of Southern Africa.
The Sixties weren’t swinging in South Africa.
SABC, the national broadcaster, deemed The Beatles too subversive for its audience as early as their mop-topped, 1962 Love Me Do phase. The relevant government minister, Albert Hertzog, vetoed the introduction of television, and attributed the fall of the British Empire to its influence.
When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, South Africa was one of few countries unable to watch him.
So imagine the shock awaiting the Springbok tourists to the United Kingdom in 1969 – a world of hippies and feminists and African emancipation. Imagine their surprise to be scapegoats for a foul political system, of whose faults they were largely blind.
To witness personally the unification of South African rugby was the privilege of a lifetime. Deep divisions that had bedevilled the game for more than 100 years were finally cast aside at a ground-breaking meeting on March 23, 1992 in Kimberley. It was chosen as a venue because both the South Africa Coloured Rugby Board (1897) and the South Africa Rugby Football Board (1889) had been founded there.
The drive to professionalism in rugby union in 1995 was fronted by the big three of the south – South Africa, Australia and New Zealand – with South Africa playing a pivotal part in what became known as ‘The Rugby War’. However, it was a comment made earlier in the year in the northern hemisphere that nearly forced a split – and the forces of change capitalised on this mood.
By the time South Africa were readmitted to international sport, two Rugby World Cups had already been completed – the inaugural event jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand in 1987, and won by the All Blacks; the follow-up competition staged in England in 1991, and claimed by another southern hemisphere nation, Australia. The Webb Ellis Cup was rapidly becoming the game’s most sought-after silverware, and South Africa wanted a part of the action…
On two separate game days, in two different hemispheres,
our photographers followed the Springboks to witness what goes on behind the scenes on Test match day.
In more than 120 years of Test rugby in South Africa, only 857 players have played for the Springboks. Thirty-six families have had two and even three brothers playing for their country. Successful siblings in sport are not unusual, but in a physical game such as rugby, where players need to possess a wide range of skills and physical attributes, genetics does seem to play a role.
From schools through clubs to South Africa’s provincial unions, all have played a role in ensuring that the Springbok team has
a ready production line of players willing to step up to higher honours.
20 memorable Springbok Test matches from 1992 to 2013.
Springbok team and player stats.