We take a look at the legacy of rugby in the Rainbow Nation


Former South African president Nelson Mandela famously stated that sport has the power to inspire and unite. Mandela made this iconic speech at the inaugural Laureus Sports Awards in 2000 – a decade after South Africa emerged from the shadow of apartheid, and five years after the Springboks won their first World Cup, on home soil.

The country and the game may have changed a great deal over the past 28 years, but the memories of 1995 have endured. Mandela wore a replica of Francois Pienaar’s No 6 jersey to the final between the Boks and All Blacks at Ellis Park, and was greeted by chants of “Nelson! Nelson!” as he walked out onto the pitch.

After the Boks won 15-12 in extra time, Pienaar was asked what it felt like to have the support of the fans at the stadium.

“We didn’t have 60,000 South Africans, we had 43 million South Africans,” Pienaar insisted, and was cheered on by Mandela himself as he raised the Webb Ellis Cup into the highveld sky.

The 1995 World Cup campaign is often described as a watershed moment for South African rugby. While the Boks have gone on to win two more World Cup titles, the early-to-mid 1990s marks the beginning of a more inclusive and prosperous era.

The modern history of rugby in South Africa

Ask any local about the history of rugby in this country, and they will note the disparity between the haves and have-nots during the time of apartheid and segregation. Even now, the official South African rugby record books make the distinction between the pre- and post-unification eras.

The Boks played their first Test against a touring British Isles side in 1891. Nearly a century passed before a player of colour – fly-half Errol Tobias – was selected for the official national team.

After apartheid ended, and after South Africa was reintroduced to the international sporting fold in 1992, the selection policy was changed to include non-white players – who represent communities that make up approximately 90% of South Africa’s population.

Why rugby is so big in South Africa

The big moment, in 1995 (Getty Images)

Few national coaches tapped into that potential – although it must be said that they weren’t helped by a provincial system that was geared to boost the privileged rather than develop the previously disadvantaged. It would be two more decades before the provinces and franchises started to field more representative teams, and before they prepared these players to take the next step up to Test level.

After being appointed as director of rugby in late 2017, Rassie Erasmus worked to address the issues in the South African system. In his capacity as Bok coach, Erasmus made a statement when he selected the Boks’ first black African Test captain – Siya Kolisi in early 2018. The team that subsequently travelled to the 2019 World Cup, and won the title against the odds, was more representative of South Africa’s demographics, and thus more widely supported across a diverse and multicultural nation.

Erasmus and Kolisi are quick to acknowledge the coaches and players who came before them, though. 

The physical legacy of Springboks rugby

While the government-enforced selection policies of the pre-unification era robbed so many talented players of the chance to represent their country, the team that represented the Boks in those years forged South Africa’s physical reputation and enjoyed a formidable record on home soil.

Between 1891 and 1992, the Boks won 20, drew four and lost seven of the Test series staged in South Africa. None of the individual Home Nations, nor mighty New Zealand, managed to win a series in this part of the world during that period. Meanwhile, the Lions claimed only three series victories on 11 tours.

The Boks also enjoyed a number of memorable victories abroad. Their win against the All Blacks at Eden Park in 1937 has never been matched by another South African side. Many hoped that Jacques Nienaber’s charges might bury the Auckland bogey in the recent Rugby Championship clash at Mount Smart Stadium, but the All Blacks romped to a 35-20 victory.

While the Boks have maintained a good record against most teams since returning to international rugby in 1992, they have fallen behind in their rivalry with the All Blacks. New Zealand have dominated southern-hemisphere rugby during the professional era, winning 23 of the 27 Tri-Nations/Rugby Championship tournaments.

The Boks have lifted the title on just four occasions – in 1998, 2004, 2009 and 2019. The unbeaten 1998 campaign was part of a record-equalling run of 17 consecutive victories. It was only in 2009, where they won three straight matches against the All Blacks, that they truly enjoyed a period of dominance against their nemeses.

Springboks Lions 2009

After defeating the Lions in 2009 (Getty Images)

While they’ve been largely inconsistent in the periods between World Cups, the Boks have still managed to perform in big tournaments and series. They bounced back from a gutting 2-1 defeat to the Lions in 1997 to win the subsequent two series in 2009 and 2021. Both of those successes were preceded by World Cup-title triumphs, in 2007 and 2019. The Bok team of the late 2000s – which included generational talents such as Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger, Fourie du Preez and Bryan Habana, among others – as well as the current group coached by Erasmus and Nienaber are arguably the greatest South African sides of all-time.

The present era of prosperity was preceded by one of the darkest periods in South African rugby history. After pushing New Zealand for the top spot in the rankings between 2012 and 2014, the Boks finished that Rugby World Cup cycle with inaugural losses to Argentina and Japan. The nightmare reached its nadir in 2016 and 2017, when they slumped to another landmark defeat to Italy, and record-breaking losses to Ireland, New Zealand and Wales.

When the Boks conceded nine tries in the 57-0 loss to the All Blacks in Albany in 2017, many took it as a sign that South African rugby was dead and that the national team might never again challenge the top teams. The system that fed the Boks also appeared to be broken beyond repair. They dropped to eighth place in the World Rugby rankings.

Becoming big in South Africa once again

And yet, only a year later, many of the same players who had failed in Albany recorded a morale-boosting 36-34 win over the All Blacks in Wellington. A new coaching team – spearheaded by Erasmus – instilled a sense of belief, as well as a more balanced approach. The drive to align the franchises with the national team also paid dividends, and slowly but surely, South African rugby started to claw its way back to the top.

During this period, Erasmus and the team won a lot of support through their drive to harness the talents of players from every South African demographic. 

Why rugby is so big in South Africa

The nadir, in Albany (Getty Images)

Kolisi crossed the Rubicon when he led the team for the first time against England at Ellis Park in 2018. Out in the stands, a diverse crowd celebrated the historic occasion, as well the fact that six black Africans had been selected in the starting XV for the first time.

Politicians such as president Cyril Ramaphosa were quick to praise the team for their efforts to drive and inspire change. Erasmus was equally quick to explain that the selections were based on merit, and that a Bok team needed to win in order to inspire. The group walked the talk in subsequent seasons, winning the 2019 World Cup in Japan, and the 2021 series against the Lions.

More recently, Erasmus, Nienaber, Kolisi and others have spoken about their quest to become the first South African side to win back-to-back World Cups. If the Boks win the global tournament in France later this year, they will join the New Zealand class of 2011 and 2015 in the rugby pantheon.

It may seem an unlikely outcome given the rise of Ireland and France, and following New Zealand’s recent surge in form. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that the Boks are not to be underestimated, and that they have a knack for winning big matches and tournaments.

Let us know why you think rugby is big in South Africa – either via rugbyworldletters@futurenet.com or on social media. 

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