Destiny is within reach, but it’s au revoir to a golden era of Bok rugby

Destiny is within reach, but it’s au revoir to a golden era of Bok rugby
South Africa team line up during the national anthems before the RWC 2023 quarterfinal between France and South Africa at Stade de France on 15 October in Paris, France. (Photo by Christian Liewig - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

When the All Blacks dished out a thrashing to the Springboks, South African rugby was at a serious fork in the road. Years later, thanks to some bold decisions, the Boks are playing in a final. But this weekend is also the end of an era of Bok rugby and a peek into the unknown.

The story of the Springboks’ journey to the Rugby World Cup 2023 final can be traced back to 16 September, 2017. 

It was that fateful day, when the All Blacks dished out a 57-0 thrashing to the Springboks in Albany, New Zealand, that the South African Rugby Union (Saru) realised it needed, not only a change in Bok management, but policy too. 

Allister Coetzee was struggling as Bok mentor for many reasons, some of his own making and some not. But the humiliating Albany fiasco shocked enough people to rouse them from their inertia and make some bold decisions. 

They needed someone to tactically and technically make the Boks competitive again. It was, and is, the team that still brings in the bulk of Saru’s revenue. When the Boks do well, South African rugby tends to do well at all levels too.

Teams and brands endure, but eras do not. This has been a very specific era of Springbok innovation and change. 

Saru had to also undertake some introspection because as Coetzee correctly lamented when he resigned (before he was axed), he had not been given all the tools to do his job properly. Having the freedom to select overseas-based players was one example of the difficulties he faced. All resources needed to be directed at making the Boks better. 

That defeat, as painful as it was, laid the groundwork for what has happened in the six years since then – a third Rugby World Cup title in 2019, a series win over the British & Irish Lion in 2021, world number-one ranking and record wins over the All Blacks in 2022 and 2023.

South Africa director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus with Bok coach Jacques Nienaber during a warm-up for their RWC match against England at Stade de France on 21 October 2023. (Photo: Craig Mercer / MB Media / Getty Images)


The arrival of Rassie Erasmus as director of rugby was the catalyst. After his first year in charge in 2018 – which saw the Boks beat the All Blacks 36-34 in Wellington in one of the most stunning turnarounds, considering what happened in Albany 12 months earlier – Erasmus was controversially awarded a contract extension until the end of 2025.

It was bold and unprecedented by Saru, in a sport where, as the cliché goes, a week is a long time. It’s paid off.

Back-to-back Rugby World Cup final appearances don’t happen often. The All Blacks did it in 2011 and 2015. England managed it in 2003 and 2007, and Australia did in 1999 and 2003. Now the Boks have joined them in 2019 and 2023. 

These are great times for South African rugby, but this weekend is also the end of an era and a peek into the unknown.

Rassie Erasmus signals with a flashing light during the South Africa vs Scotland match on 10 September during Rugby World Cup 2023. (Screenshot: Virgin Media Sport/ Youtube)

The end 

Whatever happens at Stade de France in Saint-Denis on Saturday night, it will mark a changing of the Springboks’ landscape, which for nearly six years has felt immovably and inextricably designed for one purpose – winning RWC 2023. 

Head coach Jacques Nienaber, one half of the RasNaber duo that has made the country fall in love with the Boks again, departs for Irish club Leinster. 

Felix Jones, the respected assistant coach, will return to be closer to his native Ireland, to take up a role with England.

On the field, this weekend will certainly mark the end of No 8 Duane Vermeulen’s exemplary career. The 37-year-old has fought a remarkable battle to go this far, and he has one more skirmish to fight against South Africa’s oldest and fiercest rivals in the biggest game in the sport. 

Faf de Klerk hinted it might be his last game, and others such as Steven Kitshoff, Eben Etzebeth (who was nominated for 2023 World Player of the Year this week), Franco Mostert, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Damian de Allende, Willie le Roux and Trevor Nyakane might not play international rugby again.

Even skipper Siya Kolisi, at 32 and moving to France for club rugby after the tournament, might reconsider his Test future. And even if some of those men play on, they are unlikely to make it through another four-year World Cup cycle.

who food sport

Springbok Damian Willemse takes selfies with fans after a Rugby World Cup France 2023 match. (Photo: Alex Livesey / Getty Images)

Wanted: character first

The goal laid out in the carefully crafted RasNaber blueprint, which placed character at the top of 13 traits they demanded from players, comes to fruition at Stade de France this week. 

There is no tomorrow, or next week. Whatever happens in Saint-Denis on Saturday night closes the book on this era of Bok rugby. 

Of course, the Springboks will continue to play with some of the same faces we see today, but that will fall under a new plan, with a new cast and characters. 

Teams and brands endure, but eras do not. This has been a very specific era of Springbok innovation and change. 

Pieter-Steph du Toit and Faf de Klerk of South Africa tackling Billy Vunipola of England during the semi-final match between England and South Africa on 21 October 2023 in Paris. (Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images)

This is the era that gave us 13 Test debutants in one match, the first black Springbok Test captain, a train of players at a ruck allowing the scrumhalf to launch high contestable kicks from relative safety.

It also gave us six forwards on the bench – Bomb Squad – waterboy coaches, first-half substitutions, 18 changes to match-day squads from one Test to another, seven forwards on the bench (the Nuke squad), flashing lights in the coaches box, and scrums from marks.

It’s been a whale of a time. 

It all started because of one, dark day in Albany against our oldest rivals. Things seemed so bleak and joyless then, it felt as if Springbok rugby could never recover. It felt terminal.

Yet six years on from the lessons of that pain, the courage of people at Saru such as former CEO Jurie Roux and current president Mark Alexander to recognise their own mistakes and make a change by recalling RasNaber, must never be glossed over. 

At that time South African rugby was at a serious fork in the road.

Fortunately, they chose the correct turn and now that decision, and the hundreds of small decisions and choices since then, reaches its peak against who else, but the All Blacks in the biggest game of them all.

Maybe, just maybe, destiny is with the Boks. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

P1. Front page. 28 October 2023


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Martin Oosthuizen says:

    This is an inspiring article. Almost forces one to start warming up immediately for tonight.
    Gives credit where credit is due and that credit is huge.
    Rassie weet mos but he seems to like that five bullet roulette ( a wonderful comparison)

  • Cedric Parker says:

    The way in which such a diverse group have come together to unite a nation is both monumental and prophetic. It shows that if we all surrender ourselves to a higher ideal – vanquish corruption – embrace good governance – we can launch a revival in our country that will benefit all of us.

    The Springboks have been the catalyst for a wider revival – as they have shown that we can bury our differences and work collaboratively to make the whole far more than the sum of its parts. Let’s vanquish self interest and focus on what we can do to build a nation we can be proud of.

    We can do it!!!

  • Martin Neethling says:

    It has been a remarkable story, a remarkable era that has brought us to his point. And indeed, coaches will move on, some players will retire, and 2024 will bring a new beginning. But we should not, for a minute, start thinking that we can’t continue to be the powerhouse of the game we are, or for rugby to continue to play the uniting role it plays. We have got here because excellence has been placed ahead of all other agendas. The administrators have let the Rugby men dictate the agenda, the selections, the way we play. Talk will heat up in ernest soon about Jacque Nienaber’s replacement and predictably and inevitably the talk will again shift to ‘transformation’, or that ‘it’s time for a black coach’, or that the job should automatically go to the assistant coach. All of this is wrong. The only criteria for those that come in next is that they are the best in the game, with impeccable reputations and proven records. Rugby under Erasmus and Nienaber have reminded South Africa that there can be no substitute for excellence, and that any agenda other than winning is the wrong one. Period.

  • It will be an end but also a beginning. Rasnaber have shown the way. May their successors take heart and tread the path in humility and confidence, knowing that it can be achieved with the necessary sincerity, knowhow and hard work. Well done! We salute you!!

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