Sport is about much more than results

2009-11-14 00:00

AS much as any team in the world, the Springbok rugby side is judged purely on their results. When they win, they are hailed as “the greatest team in the world, heroes of the volk en nasie”, and so on. When they lose, even if it is only a week later, they are widely condemned as “not fit to wear the jersey”.

These words are necessarily written before last night’s Test match against France in Toulouse, so it is hard to predict whether the subjects of this column are waking up this morning as still “the world’s greatest team” or whether they have been transformed overnight from Bokke to sondebokke.

Either way, they remain a group of young South Africans who are prepared to work hard, who are desperate to win in green and gold and who are unequivocally proud to represent their country.

The current tour to Europe started as an oddly two-tiered adventure, with the midweek team flying north to play Leicester, the English champions, while the Test players remained in sunny Johannesburg preparing for their French Test.

The understudies flunked their lines at Welford Road, performing below expectations and losing 22-17 to a club side missing 12 players either through injury or international duty.

Chastened and disappointed, and ruthlessly blasted in the headlines back home, a quiet group of Springboks were bussed south last Sunday and taken to a hotel in the cathedral city of St Albans, north of London. Upon arrival, most of the players dissolved into their rooms, but two, Andries Bekker and Ruan Pienaar, immediately jumped at an opportunity to drive 20 minutes to Watford, where they watched Saracens post a free-flowing 30-22 victory over Bath in the LV Cup.

The sight of these two young internationals standing modestly in the crowd suddenly prompted the thought that, in some families, the rugby genes may run so strong that Springboks are born; their respective fathers, Hennie Bekker and Gysie Pienaar, not only played together on the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand but also coached together in the national squad that won the Rugby World Cup in 1995.

The 2009 midweek Springboks trained the following morning — the kind of bleak lead-grey Monday morning that condemns England in many SA minds — and launched their preparations for their match against Saracens at Wembley next Tuesday night, the midweek side’s sole opportunity to salvage dented pride.

Limbs were loosened, muscles were stretched and, later in the day, the players returned to the same venue to conduct a coaching clinic for 180 youngsters from Hertfordshire and north London.

SA Rugby had agreed to the appearance and, testament to the enduring strength of the Springbok brand, every place was reserved within 36 hours of the event being announced.

It was dark and it was cold, but this band of young South Africans arrived with smiles on their faces, greeted the enthusiastic parents standing on the touchline and, to a man, entered into the spirit of the activities, coaching and encouraging the children, joining in the games, running, jumping, tackling, laughing, creating memories, and then, without a moan or a groan, remaining to sign every last autograph.

“Apparently the Springboks were good at the coaching clinic,” somebody said a few days later.

“No, they were not good,” replied a prominent local businessman, who had taken his young son along to the clinic.

“I will argue with anybody who says they were good. The fact is they were unbelievable. When the boy said he wanted to go, I was sceptical because, in my experience, most professional sportsmen tend to be arrogant and lazy; they do the minimum and give the impression they’re doing you a huge favour.

“These guys were completely different. They could not have been more friendly.

“They could not have been more positive. They could not have been better role models. On the way home, my son announced he was going to start supporting South Africa. I told him that was going too far, but his logic was sound.”

It is probably asking too much for South Africans to judge their rugby players by anything other than the result of their most recent match, but they are a decent bunch.

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