The Boks’ powerful aura, honed over six years, is very real and very scary
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.
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.
There are signs of unflinching confidence everywhere.
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.
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