Boks’ approach to adversity set them apart in the defining moments of RWC 2023

Boks’ approach to adversity set them apart in the defining moments of RWC 2023
South Africa captain Siya Kolisi lifts the Webb Ellis trophy after the team won the Rugby World Cup 2023 final against in Saint-Denis, France, on 28 October 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Yoan Valat)

The Springboks’ Rugby World Cup 2023 was a question of edging many big moments in matches because they were driven by something deeper than just winning a match.

How the hell did that happen? This question was asked after the Springboks edged France by one point in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals, and after they claimed a one-point win against England in the semis.

In the lead-up to the final against New Zealand, one Kiwi podcast host suggested that the Boks were the zombies of the rugby world. Just when they appear to be dead and buried, they claw their way out of the grave, and find a way to win.

How did they beat the All Blacks by one point in the decider? It’s tempting to dismiss the question, as the result is in the books. Siya Kolisi’s team has become the first South African side to win back-to-back World Cup titles.

And yet, we should care how and why the Boks won. Addressing these questions gives us a better appreciation for what this special team has achieved, and how they have set the example for South Africa at large.

The Boks’ spirit animal

Boks and adversity

Pieter-Steph du Toit overcame seemingly unsurmountable odds to make it to the Rugby World Cup 2023 final. (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Let’s start with Pieter-Steph du Toit, the Boks’ spirit animal in the recent final against the All Blacks.

The blindside flank made a whopping 28 tackles, but the stats won’t tell you how the blond-haired destroyer targeted the All Blacks’ key decision-makers and ultimately disrupted the opposition attack.

Casual observers may remember that Du Toit produced a similarly influential performance in the 2019 World Cup final against England in Yokohama. They may applaud Du Toit for maintaining his edge over a four-year period. Those who have followed Du Toit’s story closely, however, will recognise a more significant arc.

Several months after being named the World Rugby Player of the Year, Du Toit sustained a freakish leg injury while on duty for the Stormers in a Super Rugby match. After being rushed to hospital, he was told that his leg may need to be amputated. At that stage, a return to any form of rugby just didn’t seem possible.

Nevertheless, he fought his way back to appear in the 2021 series against the British & Irish Lions. That comeback was cut short, though, after he sustained a shoulder injury in the second Test, and was ruled out for the rest of the year.

Du Toit’s immediate reaction was despair. But as the weeks turned into months, he started to claw his way out of the hole. Like the aforementioned zombies, he doesn’t know when to quit.

He returned to the Bok set-up in 2022 and began to build momentum ahead of the 2023 World Cup. That journey climaxed in the final against New Zealand, where he produced his greatest performance in a Bok jersey.

Pieter-Steph du Toit tackling

Pieter-Steph du Toit tackles Jordie Barrett of New Zealand – it was just one of Du Toit’s 28 tackles during the game. (Photo: Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

Coming back stronger

This is not only a tribute to Du Toit, but a tribute to a special group of players. They have endured so many traumas and setbacks over the years, yet have come back stronger on most occasions.

Captain Siya Kolisi sustained a serious knee injury at the start of 2023, but fought back to rejoin the Boks ahead of their all-important World Cup campaign in France. Eben Etzebeth returned from a problematic shoulder injury, but suffered a more painful setback when his father passed away after a long battle with cancer.

Nobody would have thought less of these two players had they failed to recover in time for the team’s World Cup title defence in France. But Kolisi and Etzebeth never faltered in their dedication to the cause, and that attitude filtered down to the rest of the players.

The list of players who have triumphed over adversity to represent the Boks in France goes on.

When Handré Pollard returned to play in January after a long layoff, I asked him whether his previous setbacks had prepared him for the mental battle that so many injured players face. Pollard went into detail about that gruelling ordeal and revealed just how lonely it could be.

Pollard was driven by his desire to play at the World Cup in France. A few months later, he suffered another serious leg injury, and wasn’t selected for the Boks’ initial 33-man squad. When Malcolm Marx broke down in the wake of the Scotland game, coaches Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber opted to bring Pollard back into the team.

What were the expectations of Pollard at that stage? He lacked match fitness, having not played much rugby over a period of 12 months. You could have forgiven him if he took longer than a couple of games to find his feet – or if he missed the odd kick at goal.

But from his first appearance against Tonga, Pollard made it clear that he intended to make every opportunity count. He showed his mettle when he slotted a late penalty in the quarterfinal, and again in the dying moments of the semi. He scored all of South Africa’s points in the final, yet it was his decision-making in general play that really stood out.

Playing for something greater

Boks and adversity

Hooker Bongi Mbonambi celebrates South Africa’s victory over the All Blacks on 28 October 2023.  (Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images)

The players and coaches have made the point that they are playing for something greater than themselves.

Many of these individuals know what it means to have nothing, or to grow up in environments where violence and poverty are prevalent. They have walked a long and hard road to the top, but haven’t forgotten where they came from.

After the Boks won the 2019 World Cup, Kolisi and others seized the opportunity to launch foundations and movements with the aim of making a difference. While fulfilling their duties in the communities, they were reminded of the extraordinary challenges that a lot of South Africans face on a daily basis.

When I interviewed Kolisi in 2020 after the launch of his foundation, he expressed his shock and sadness at the situation in Limpopo. Other players such as Cheslin Kolbe also struggled to contain their emotions when going out into afflicted areas and witnessing the situation first-hand.

Many of the players have strived to make a difference off the field. Unsurprisingly, those experiences have strengthened their sense of purpose when pulling on the green and gold jersey.

What the Boks are playing for, and indeed how they continue to inspire a nation, is a story some find hard to believe. Back in 2019, when the Boks were building towards the final against England, an experienced foreign journalist asked me if the culture within the South African team was genuine.

He didn’t appear satisfied when I relayed some of the players’ individual stories, or when I spoke about the bond between Kolisi, Etzebeth and Beast Mtawarira. His eyes glazed over when I recalled what Erasmus had said back in 2018, regarding the quest to win matches and transform the national team. “Stronger together” was a powerful slogan, yet to many outsiders it was just a slogan.

But in the wake of the 2019 final, he became a believer. Nobody who witnessed the performance at the Yokohama Stadium that day or heard Kolisi’s powerful post-match speech could deny that the team was the real deal on so many levels.

How the small moments added up

Boks and adversity

President Cyril Ramaphosa, holding the Webb Ellis trophy aloft, joins the celebrations after the Boks’ historic win against New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup 2023 finals in France. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Christophe Petit Tesson)

Something similar transpired at the Stade de France this past Saturday, 28 October, as the Boks dug deep to outlast the All Blacks.

Du Toit, Kolisi and Etzebeth played like there was no tomorrow. Faf de Klerk found something extra when he dived towards Dalton Papali’i and completed an important ankle-tap tackle to fell the flanker. Somehow Kurt-Lee Arendse got back to hit the much larger Rieko Ioane into touch.

The stats suggest that the All Blacks should have won the game. France dominated in the same manner in the quarters, as did England in the semis. So how did the Boks prevail?

South Africa won a series of little moments, and eventually those moments added up.

Kolbe rushed off the line to charge down Thomas Ramos’s attempted conversion in the quarterfinal. When France launched a desperate attack at the death, De Klerk got in the way and ripped the ball clear to end the contest.

Ox Nché won several penalties after being introduced at the back end of the semifinal, but the most important play was at the final scrum, where the front row earned the Boks a chance to win the game.

When all the evidence is considered, the answer to the question of “how” the Boks won three tight playoffs, and ultimately the World Cup title, becomes clear. You also don’t have to delve too deep to find out why they were so desperate to succeed.

After Kwagga Smith won a breakdown penalty in the dying stage of the quarterfinal, Pollard pointed to the posts. Bongi Mbonambi, who was standing in for captain Kolisi, came across to his flyhalf and barked: “For South Africa.”

In a campaign of brave moments, that was arguably the bravest.

Pollard had the future of the Boks’ campaign in his hands. Mbonambi could have whispered a quiet word of encouragement, or simply allowed Pollard to get on with his goal-kicking process.

Instead, the combative hooker reminded Pollard what was on the line: not a result, but a chance to give a troubled nation a reason to cheer. To his credit, Pollard took that message in the right spirit, and a positive approach yielded a positive result.

The Boks embraced the pressure throughout the tournament. While they didn’t have everything their own way, they never lost faith in one another, and never forgot about their overriding purpose.

Their unity and mental strength ensured that they outlasted the best France team of the modern era, as well as an All Blacks side featuring some of the game’s all-time great players.

The players deserve credit, but so do Erasmus, Nienaber and the rest of the coaching staff responsible for creating the right environment.

“South Africa” has been engraved on the Webb Ellis Cup for a record fourth time, and the team that went back-to-back will never be forgotten.

The story of “how” they prevailed and what they stood for should also be remembered and relayed, for it has the power to inspire generations to come. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    BOKKE! I’ll need to watch again (and again) to appreciate the enormity of what the team achieved. So proud, so happy, so satisfied!

  • Tony Moody says:

    Is there any news about Bongi Mbonambi?
    In my mind he was going to “win” the game, but he was side lined very soon after the start.

    • Jan Malan says:

      My notion is we would have won by more points if Deon with fresh legs and energy replaced Bongi in the 60th minute and not in the opening minutes.
      I always feel a little bit sorry for the loser thinking always of Queen’s song: The Winner Takes It All and the loser standing small. But now I am happy and glad that the AB lost this game. I did not like their nastiness in the beginning of the game playing the man instead of the ball. Their nastiness only stopped when their captain got red carded.

      • Steve Davidson says:

        Well said, Jan. Frizzell should also have been red-carded for his cynical jump on Bongi’s leg, particularly as he also had him in a neck choke!
        I have to say that I stopped being ‘nice’ about the ABs way back in 2011 when they cheated the Boks in the RWC Quarter Final by having their own ref Bryce Lawrence on the game who ensured that David Pocock was allowed to grovel around unpenalized in every lose scrum and destroy the Boks ball.
        In fact, I was glad I was watching the game on SABC where, although we missed the anthems, we didn’t have to watch that silly haka of theirs either!

  • Frank Fettig says:

    Now to kick the despicable ANC out of power.
    Then South Africa will have truly won!

    • Dan Bowskill says:

      Yes, the ANC have no right to celebrate or comment in any form on the country’s staggering World Cup success. These celebrations are reserved for decent hard working South Africans and corrupt, theving leeches are not included. The freeby gate crashing caper to the final by Rhamaposa and his hangers-on was not appreciated, and very few were happy to see him there.

  • Coen Gous says:

    One thing that sets DM apart from other online websites, and for the most part, social media (some good channels on YouTube, like Eggbeaters), is the quality of journalism. Brilliant article, with the climax to me the very opening sentence: “How the hell did that happen?” Sums up everything about this WC, where SA was confronted by so many things. Claims of racism, draw, injuries at the wrong time, death threats, booing by the French spectators during the final, and much more. To me, simply a team brought together by the most amazing coaching staff over 5 years, and just incredible team spirit

  • davidcoleman1001 says:

    As an Englishman, reading this article, you would forgive me for wanting to pour scorn on the many mentions of adversity, the strengthening of character and the ‘want’ to give back. But, having lived in South Africa for nearly seven years, by far the most beautiful of all the countries I have lived and worked, and being married to lovely SA girl, I get it. If you spend time here, you see it, you feel it, you understand it, and only then do you get it. I proudly wore green and gold for the final and sank a few dops!

  • Alastair Sellick says:

    Great article, Jon.
    Thank you.

  • Rob Wilson says:

    And now. To stop that cup being hidden in a couch somewhere.

  • Russell Hendry says:

    Another good article that once again fails to or is too politically correct to mention what is common within these players that really drives them and gives them purpose in life. They serve and are accountable to a Higher Power……Steph, always reminds us, at the start of an interview and many other heavenly signs from players after scoring a try, and those many markings on the players wrist guards. Why are we so reticent to accept the fact from whence their direction, humility, care, love and power comes from?

    • Steve Davidson says:

      We are ‘so reticent’ because most of us are atheists or agnostics? And if “their direction, humility, care, love and power” comes from some unknown source, I’d like to know why he or she has made such a stuff up of this world?! Or is it religiously incorrect to ask that?

      • Russell Hendry says:

        So,a glaringly obvious spiritual motivation within this Springbok squad must be ignored “because most of us are atheists or agnostics”.? Yet we are debating what has made this bunch so committed and successful and what a wonderful leader and man, Siya is. On his wrist guard is written ‘Jesus’ and crosses depicted on many other bandaged warriors. Surely, we should be asking the question- what is this? We all seem to agree that if this leadership, management, ethical, respectful and non-racial style of doing things was applied in our country, it would be successful. And hence it must follow that if it was applied world-wide, we might all have a better world. Whatever your beliefs, surely, we must want to explore the openly visible spiritual beliefs of the current squad in an effort to understand their success recipe?

  • jonathan Basckin says:

    So Saturday will be Another day that goes down in history in the South African calendar where the useless ornate tin cup will stand proud Amongst our other considerable achievements. 68 murders a day/ 39 percent unemployment/ 21% inadequate access to food/ no airline/ no rail system/ no electricity/ no water and fewer roads….. oh, we forget a conservative assessment being 200 to 250 thousand Without shelter.

    But we now have the world’s most ornate and Biggest begging cup to rattle at the World Bank.

    Oh the joy of being number one
    fugacious and fleeting for some
    but it’s here to stay
    for at least the day
    till reality knocks, refusing to be undone

  • Annelise Jansen van Vuuren says:

    Well done Bokke!!!!!
    As sport can be very nerve-wracking, I crochet during the games to calm my nerves. Low and behold. I realized that I was busy with a beautiful WIT KANT top. When done I want to frame it and give to Curry. Some other suggestions anyone………

    • Mary Contrary says:

      Come on! What does ‘white side’ even mean? It was a racial slur and everyone knows it. Puts this soppy article in perspective. South African men are as boorish as ever, it’s just equal opportunity now.

  • Jan Malan says:

    I was under the impression I was the only person who dislikes the silly Haka. Glad to see their are others who think the same as me.
    My wife said something funny. While they do the Haka with their wooden spear we should stand quietly with a wooden spoon.

  • Derek Jones says:

    I could not believe Stefs effort though. He was massive. And Pollard, what a skill and Faff, great work What a team! Behind the scenes I am sure there was a lot I missed and to you, thanks and well done. To Frizell , for that pre meditated nastiness, I say get lost permanently. We do not want to see you back on the field, and if you ever do come back here, you will get what you deserve. We could not sort you out during the game, but make no mistake if you come over here that move will not go unpunished.

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