When Rassie Erasmus took over as coach of the Springboks in 2018, few thought they had a chance of winning the Rugby World Cup. In Miracle Men, Sports writer Lloyd Burnard takes the reader on the thrilling journey of a team that went from no-hopers to world champions.
The 2019 Rugby World Cup managed to capture some the magic of it's more famous and lauded predecessor. The 2007 win seemed to capture less public attention, where 2019 and 1995 stand as these monumentous moments that suggest some kind of progressiveness in the sport. What can you attribute this to?
We should not take anything away from what the Springboks achieved in 2007. They were as clinical as any South African side that came before or after. But the social significance of the wins in 1995 and 2019 I think stands out for obvious reasons. In 1995, this country was filled with promise and ready to start healing, but it remained divided in so many ways. The Springboks winning the World Cup was the first glimpse of how powerful sport could be in uniting a nation, and a glimpse into a future that was bright. Unfortunately, Springbok rugby – and transformation in sport in general - did not progress in the way that we had hoped in the years to come. Rugby was still considered predominantly a white sport, with white superstars and white captains. In 2019, the Boks fielded a team that began to more accurately represent the country. What makes the win in 2019 so special is that it really belonged to everybody, and that was seen on the trophy tour through the townships of the Eastern Cape. Not only did this team have black players, but those black players were the stars, and they had written their names into South African rugby history. Mapimpi, Am, Kolisi … these were the heroes of World Cup 2019. South African rugby had never seen anything like it.
You travelled with the winning team last on their victory tour. Can you tell us a little but about the energy, on and off the bus?
I’ve been so privileged over the course of my career to travel internationally and cover major sporting events – the Olympic Games in Rio and the Cricket World Cup in England, for example. Despite those incredible moments, I think the five days I spent with the Springboks travelling the country is the highlight of my journalistic career. I can still remember the faces as hundreds of thousands of people came out to welcome this team back. For five days, across the country, the ground in South Africa shook and to be that close to that euphoria was something incredibly difficult to describe. I think that, for those players, what they experienced that week will take some beating, too.
National sports serve as very interesting case studies when it comes to examining the politics of any nation. South Africa's wins on international platform have served as nation-building projects, but in what ways have recent conversations sparked by Black Lives Matter begun to chip away at these images and narratives of unity?
The Black Lives Matter movement has rightly forced South African sport to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Cricket has been front and centre in this regard, with former players and coaches highlighting issues of division, exclusion, and systemic racism that have filled a dark space of the game's history. Rugby, despite its successes in 2019, must not be immune to that introspection. The team culture of inclusivity and equal opportunity was a hallmark of the triumphant 2019 Springbok squad, and in many ways, they displayed a blueprint of sorts in terms of extinguishing the ideology that transformation and excellence can't work together. I do think, though, that SA Rugby needs to take a stronger stand in acknowledging that, in times past, black players and coaches were not afforded the same opportunities as their white colleagues. That acknowledgement is important.
You mention in the book that black players in the squad like Beast, Kolisi and Mapimpi were intergral in this win. Mapimpi had to overcome a number of hurdles to make it to the squad. You attribute may of these successes to their player's disciplined work ethic and their coach, Rassie Erasmus. But the socio-economic and political factors that keep players from national level sporting activity can not just be solved by hard work. Can you elaborate on this?
The journeys of the likes Makazole Mapimpi and Siya Kolisi, who all come from extremely difficult upbringings in the Eastern Cape and had to overcome extreme hurdles in life and sport, constitute a significant of what made this win so special. Talent and hard work were obviously crucial in them making it to the top, but for black players who come from these challenging beginnings, opportunity is more important than anything else. Seeing a World Cup-winning Springbok squad rich in black talent from the Eastern Cape was so incredibly encouraging to see, but for every Kolisi that made it out Zwide and into the professional ranks, how many others disappear because they are never afforded the opportunity to develop their talent? That remains the major challenge for SA Rugby. Kolisi, Mapimpi and Am were the pioneers, but many more must now follow.