MARK KEOHANE, in Business Day Sport Monthly, writes it will be the Boks by 15 against the Aussies at Loftus on Saturday. At least that’s what history says.
Perception too often is accepted as fact. The perception of excellence in Springbok rugby is an illusion. The fact is the Springboks lose a lot of Test matches and have done so consistently over the last century.
They have a win percentage that has on occasion threatened 65% but is closer to 60%. It has always been this way. There have been some magnificent teams. Equally there have been some shockers, who have taken beatings abroad and been humiliated at home.
Time dulls the memory. Results are forgotten, folklore ensures only the good times are remembered and the good in one era become very good. The 30 metre kick to beat the All Blacks is now 60 metres. The tough men of the early 1900s were man mountains and when the current pretenders deliver a depressing result, the obvious is to hanker back to the days when Bok midfielders were more imposing than town marshalls – all 76 kilograms of them.
‘Steak, chips and a bottle of wine,’ says another. ‘That was the pre-Test meal.’ Those were the days apparently when men were men, the Springboks were something mystical and pasta was something only the Italians ate.
And so we romance the game, listen to the stories told by those who were there, who saw the 60 metre kick, although it could have been 70 metres and take comfort that the Springboks, if not today, then most days were destroyers of opposition dreams and the ultimate challenge in world rugby.
‘You win in the Republic. Then you can call yourself a rugby player. The South African public acknowledges you can play … boy then you can play.’
You’ve heard them all …
‘A wounded Bok is a dangerous animal … There is nothing as imposing as a Bok team written off … Beware the mighty Boks … Wait till you get to altitude …’
Then we recall a glory moment when the Boks were given no chance of victory and won; when the world dismissed the challenge of those giants in green and gold and were forced to concede the greatness of those rugby men from the Republic.
The storytelling goes beyond rugby. Historically, it has been a life identity. A Springbok … it is what every white boy dreams to become. Post apartheid it is what every South African boy wants to be.
In sporting isolation the legend rose more than it grew. Mortals were immortal and no team could claim anything until they had proved it in the Republic.
Thus, for 20 years, the Boks were the best team in the world. Our rugby was of superior quality; our players dominated every South African media World XV.
Our boys kicked 70 metre penalties (forget the small matter of altitude). Those blokes overseas, they can’t even knock them over from 50 (forget the small matter of sea level).
The television images don’t lie.
The rugby media, be it in print, on television or radio, reinforce the legend.
‘You can’t call yourselves the world champions until you beat the Boks.’ That’s our response to New Zealand’s claim to have won the first ever World Cup in 1987.
And then we hosted the 1995 World Cup final and beat the All Blacks 15-12 in a final that went into extra-time. Andrew Mehrtens, ironically born in Durban, had the chance to win it for New Zealand with a drop goal attempt from 20 metres out and right in front. His kick, with less than a minute to play of normal time, missed and the game ended 9-all.
It was God’s will, said the older folk. It was written in the stars said the team management. There was no way we could lose, said the players. A greater force was guiding them.
And don’t forget that when a Jew plays for the Boks, that’s even greater confirmation defeat is never a consideration.
The All Blacks, a year later in 1996, beat the Boks four times in five, with three of the wins in South Africa. They won in Cape Town, Durban and in Pretoria.
But when they lost the last of the five Tests in Johannesburg, order was restored and the Boks had again shown the Kiwis and the world just who was the best.
As the legend grew, so too did the belief that nothing but an emphatic victory every Saturday would suffice. A failure to deliver was treated with disgust; apparently such was the rarity.
‘How? We are the Boks … We don’t lose.’
But we do, too often when reality is measured against perception.
‘Not in my day,’ screams a newspaper headline. Another of yesterday’s heroes has given up on the jersey he once wore as symbol of superiority in everything rugby and most things generally.
‘I don’t watch the kids of today. They’re soft. I’d rather mow my lawn.’
The media fuels the frenzy. Another of the all-time greats, with a Test record of nine wins in 17, says he is embarrassed to call himself a Bok if the lot that just disgraced the jersey are still called Boks.
He is so disgusted at the Boks losing to Scotland he tells the media he is considering giving back his Bok blazer.
Our game is in crisis. Legends want to mow the lawn and give back their prized green and gold Bok jersey.
‘It’s the blacks,’ say some. ‘They’ve destroyed everything and now they’ve even destroyed our rugby.’
Another of those giants of yesteryear is inspired to let the nation know there won’t be a future for the Boks by the year 2000.
The team will be black, they will be called something else and they will play in another colour jersey is his prophecy. But he no longer objects because at least the legacy of the green jersey, the Bok and the King’s crown won’t suffer more embarrassment.
‘This lot … in my day … when the game still had scrums, when a punch sorted the kings from the queens and when players could run, pass, dummy, side step and tackle … In my day.’
Bok rugby is again in crisis, screams another newspaper front-page lead story.
Apparently another legend of yesteryear is embarrassed. He is even thinking of moving to Australia because if he had ever produced such a passionless display he would have fled out of fear for his life; alternatively he would have done what men of those days did and claimed himself unworthy of the jersey and all things South Africa. He too would have fled the country, but the measure of his quality is that it would have been before they kicked him out.
The great grandfather is sullen. The grandfather tells the son it is because of the hurt at the Boks losing to Australia.
The blacks and ANC government are no longer to blame. It’s the cash. Professionalism and money are the evils.
The players are spoilt and greedy. Then the grandfather tells the eight year old. ‘Ah you would have loved it … Victor Matfield (paaaaleeeeeese). He wouldn’t have lasted a minute. Frik du Preez, now that is a lock. A giant of a man. Taller than anything these days, stronger, heavier and quicker than Habana. He could run, tackle, kick and pass. And boy could he scored tries, and he could drink.’
The boy logs onto the internet and wishes it was Frik out there earlier in the day.
The Boks he believed could not lose were not the real Boks.
The headline demands change. The coach must go; those imposters in green and gold must go. Alternatively, rugby in South Africa, as it was once known, will be dead.
Another of yesterday’s heroes says he fears the rest of the world thinks of us as Wales. He says there is no future for the game and he gives his 10 point plan to restore order the next week. It involves kicking out half the team and replacing the coach.
‘In my day,’ he tells the reporter. ‘Doc Craven would not have tolerated this. That guy’s career would be over. Those were the standards Craven demanded. This legend then boasts about the physicality of the Boks of his era and the brutality of the tackles and the magic ways of the wings and the length of penalty goals our flyhalves used to have to kick … in the wet, with a heavy leather ball, into a wind (not the breeze we get today … a wind) and in conditions that were mudbaths … not the carpets you call a rugby field.
Oh, and in those days you played for 80 minutes, he adds. You got up after being knocked out and you played. You broke your collar bone and you played. That was what the jersey meant to him and his teammates.
Now guys last 50 minutes and even that is too much because it is so easy to play club rugby in Japan for outrageous sums of money. It’s rugby’s blasphemy.
This legend too is thinking of heading to Australia where rugby union’s not even the first choice sport; yet those okes still beat us. What next?’
The national coach fronts the media, as if on trial for treason. A nation has been lied to, betrayed and insulted.
The coach promises the players will work harder, restore credibility and be true to the history of the jersey.
We hold our breath, we pat ourselves on the back that even in these foreign and dark times we can show such loyalty and we vow to watch the Boks the following week.
‘We are the Boks,’ he says. ‘We don’t lose.’
And the grandson smiles. Order has been restored.
The legacy of the Boks is not dead. The game apparently is no longer in crisis and we will not be the Wales of rugby.
He logs onto the Internet and smiles even more. The legends of yesteryear won’t be going to Australia after all and one of the finest legends has laughed off reports that the Boks are a team that historically loses 40 percent of their Tests.
‘Not in my day,’ he has told the reporter. ‘And definitely not on Saturday. Boks to take it by 15 because we never lose.’
– This article first appeared in the October issue of Business Day Sport Monthly. The magazine is distributed free with Business Day newspaper on the second last Friday of each month.