RWC 2023

The Boks’ powerful aura, honed over six years, is very real and very scary

The Boks’ powerful aura, honed over six years, is very real and very scary
Siya Kolisi, captain of South Africa, celebrates with fans after the Rugby World Cup 2023 match against Scotland at Orange Velodrome, Marseille, on 10 September 2023. (Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images)

There’s an atmosphere in the 2023 Springbok camp that is almost visceral in nature. It’s an air that only a few truly great teams have possessed.

There is something powerful brewing with the Springboks at Rugby World Cup 2023. It’s something I saw with the All Blacks in 2015 when they went on to claim back-to-back world titles.

It’s an air of inevitability – a sense of destiny stemming from a place of deep calm and relaxation. Eight years ago, Richie McCaw and his brilliant side happily wore the favourites tag thanks to their experience and planning – and they duly won RWC 2015.

The 2023 Boks have a similar air about them.

This is a team and a squad incredibly comfortable in its skin. There is no sense of nerves (which of course there must be, close to kick-off) but rather, confidence.

bok aura

Springbok lock RG Snyman makes an offload in the Rugby World Cup 2023 match against Scotland in Marseille. (Photo: Juan Jose Gasparini / Gallo Images)

Everyone knows their roles so well; their goals are set and their plans are laid. Because of that, they can focus on execution, comfortable in their approach.

After spending a few days staying in the Boks’ plush hotel in Toulon, I was able to observe the players in a relaxed environment and I think opponents might be terrified if they were occupying the same space.

There is a strut about the Boks, which mustn’t be confused with arrogance. There is an aura emanating from a squad so sure of its identity that doubt and worry are not factors.

They’re not carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, but rather enjoying seizing a moment, which all their preparation has brought them to.

Personal connections

There are signs of unflinching confidence everywhere. 

bok aura

Springbok flank Pieter-Steph Du Toit attacks Sione Tuipolotu of Scotland during their Rugby World Cup 2023 match in Marseille. (Photo: Juan Jose Gasparini / Gallo Images)

Pieter-Steph du Toit nipping off to the beach for a dip in the Mediterranean in between hard work reveals something about the nature of the camp.

Bongi Mbonambi frolicking in the pool with his children, or coach Jacques Nienaber enjoying a quiet breakfast with his wife (admittedly with a laptop on the table looking at videos from the Scotland game), show the Boks are real people and not drones built for battle.

There used to be a feeling that partners and children shouldn’t be in the “workspace”, but this is not a nine-to-five job and “normal” rules don’t apply.

Nienaber’s varsity-going son was spending a few days with his dad at the hotel. It’s the first time the Bok coach has seen his son since May.

On the morning of the Boks’ opening Pool B match, Malcolm Marx was on baby duty with his little one, sharing a few hours with other players just being dads or husbands in between their day jobs.

Lesser teams, lesser coaches, and yes, a less experienced squad might need a different approach, but this group is all about personal connections.

It’s evident in the way the Bok players spend so much time thanking fans after games. It shows that they’re very aware of their influence and how much more they’re playing for than winning a World Cup. That inspires rather than cows them.

bok aura

Springbok Cheslin Kolbe takes a selfie with fans after their side’s victory over Scotland in their opening Rugby World Cup 2023 match in Marseille. (Photo: Juan Jose Gasparini / Gallo Images)

On Sunday, after beating Scotland 18-3 to start their campaign positively, the players gave lots of their time taking selfies with thousands of South Africans who had travelled to Marseille.

Captain Siya Kolisi had media duties straight after the game, but once he was done, he came out alone on to the Stade de Marseille pitch and lingered with groups of fans to share a moment. There is not a more popular South African player than the skipper and it’s not an exaggeration to say that he is rugby’s biggest name.

In the post-match media conference, a journalist told Kolisi he had recently covered the World Athletics Championships in Budapest. In a conversation with colleagues from Ethiopia and Kenya, he was surprised to learn that those journalists, who barely know the sport of rugby, described Kolisi as one of the most important Africans in the world. Not a rugby player – but a person.

Naturally, Kolisi was as modest as ever, saying that being a good father, husband and brother to his siblings, as well as a teammate, was how he measured his success in life.

“This team keeps me humble and if my head gets too big, they ‘pop’ it for me,” Kolisi explained. “No one is bigger than the team.”

Know your job

And therein lies the Boks’ true north. It’s a collective unit. This World Cup won’t be won by individuals. It will be a team effort made up of the sum of its parts.

Ever since Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber returned to take up coaching duties in 2018, the mantra has been simple: “Know your job; do your job.”

No one expects miracles, the impossible or even perfection. But 100% effort and commitment to the plan is non-negotiable. What’s expected is for people in the environment, from the players and coaches down to the support staff, to understand their roles and then do their best to fulfil them successfully.

It’s incredibly simple in theory, but a lot harder to achieve in practice because core to this philosophy are accountability and honesty. It’s fair to say this group has had success in both departments.

From the outset of this project to win RWC 2023 six seasons ago, transparency within the team environment has been a central tenet of the journey.

Selection meetings are open to players, questions are allowed, and debate is encouraged. But when a decision has been made about an approach, it’s final and accountability is expected.

By being so open, it removes unnecessary stresses such as players fretting over selection. Allowing family into the “workspace” further releases the pressure valve.

By now, the coaches and players know when and how to get into “the zone”. They have become adept at flicking the switch and insiders in the camp say there is no one better than Erasmus at turning up the volume as matches approach.

The vastly experienced squad, with 21 survivors from RWC 2019, is also an essential contributing factor to the approach. A bunch of 20-year-olds would need a more controlling environment, but mature men – with commitments other than playing rugby – allow for a mature outlook.

Arriving at RWC 2023 with a squad averaging nearly 30 years of age has not happened by accident. It’s been by design which, again, merely underlines the clarity of thinking and commitment to a plan that was designed to peak in France.

Sport being what it is, though, means that no amount of planning can guarantee success or eliminate the possibility of failure.

The bounce of the ball, a poor decision, a bad refereeing call, or an opponent having the day of his life, are all vagaries that play a part in deciding a knockout competition.

But at least we know that if these Boks don’t manage to defend their title, a lack of preparation and clarity of planning won’t be the reason.

They have an aura of power. It’s real, and it’s scary. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • William Kelly says:

    And it’s absolutely brilliant. The Bokke have pulled us up so much we owe them a debt that cannot be repaid. I hope we win. They deserve to.

  • Peter Holmes says:

    Craig, I’m a cautious optimist. Ienjoyed your article but it might have been better to publish this after the quarter finals. The French are formidable and New Zealand, well, anything can happen against the All Blacks.

    • bojes says:

      He’s not talking about success or failure, he’s on about attitude

      • Peter Holmes says:

        True, I get that. My comment is nuanced: would this article have been written after a (perish the thought) Bok defeat in the Quarter Finals?

        • callsignvector says:

          Peter, I understand your hesitation to be positive about the Boks however there is a thing in elite sport which implores you to be positive about how you train, how you play and your chances. There is no arrogance in that, its self belief which propels performance. There is a risk in all sport of losing. If there was no risk it would not be a spectacle. The way I see it, there are two options, be genuinely positive about yourself or be humble and cautious. The one option allows you to escape defeat without looking arrogant and the other option allows your performance to slightly elevate to match your self belief. Both are okay. I know which one I would choose as one of the favourites in this tournament. There are other options which I would not like to see, unearned arrogance is one but the Boks have earned the right to be self assured in what they are attempting.

  • M. Mabula says:

    Bring it home..oops! Keep it at home.

  • Annie Conway says:

    Decades ago our bokke were scoffed at as being ignorant buffaloes. This cannot be further from the truth when referring to our current team.

    • Steve Davidson says:

      For me, they represent what the New South Africa should be, and unfortunately isn’t. Yet. The combination of most of the different groups in SA in the team shows just what could happen if we could get rid of the crooks that have brought this country to its knees and get the TeamSA going. I have to say that seems to be the way the Western Cape has gone despite the nonsense we get from the ANC and the other racists like the EFF!

  • Steve Davidson says:

    This team have succeeded at so many levels already it’s unbelievable, well maybe not so much if you look at the whole structure, from Rassie downwards. I seriously believe that he will go down as one of the top, if not the top, rugby brains ever: the game in general, and of course South Africa in particular, will owe him a huge debt. As a rooinek who came to the Free State in 1969 and said for a long time that it took me only ten minutes to love their rugby (but ten years to love Bok rugby – this was the 70s!) I am obviously biased, but it is lovely to see what he’s done. In fact, it’s been really great reading some poms’ comments that ‘it’s against the rules’ to use hid old traffic light system like he did last Sunday – er yeah…
    What he has done for rugby in general – which must also get up the poms’ and the ABs’ noses – is to show how the ridiculous breakdown laws that the latter managed to avoid revising in 2016 because it messed up their one dimensional way of playing, can be worked around. Naturally it needed some fantastic backs too. And of course his rush defence that we saw in the opening match against them in 2019 – that the English borrowed to win the semifinal against them – has worked very well.
    While I am confident that the team will win the cup, if they don’t they will have to be beaten by some amazing rugby, and certainly not the kick-and-rush nonsense the French, English and ABs used.
    Bokke bokke bokke!!!

  • deon.pretorius says:

    Alweer Checkers…

  • Petrus Marais says:

    Thank you again for a very well written piece

  • Cedric Buffler says:

    Reading this on 30 December, Craig needs to be commended on his courage in saying what he saw at the time.

  • Jeremy Wiley says:

    Thanks Craig. That was a great article setting the RWC 23 scene. Prescient indeed and explains clearly how it was possible for the Boks to triumph against the stiffest of odds. The Boks performances inspired a nation and have given the people of SA real hope that working together we can achieve our full collective potential. Best wishes to all in Team SA in 2024.

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