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