Resolution has triumphed over revolution and South African rugby’s resurrection is proving to be real in 2017.
It feels good watching the Springboks in 2017. It is even better to get to write about their performance and it is inspiring to report on the good news stories in South African rugby, from the Lions to the pending adventure of the Kings and Cheetahs in the Pro 14, to the return of Rassie Erasmus, and to the Springboks playing quality rugby to a packed stadium in South Africa.
In my Monday Business Day Newspaper column I wrote that just before you dismiss the Springboks’ 37-15 triumph against the Pumas in Port Elizabeth as ‘just being Argentina’, rewind the clock to 2016 and 2015 when the Springboks lost to Argentina (twice), lost to Japan (2015) and lost to Italy (2016).
The Springboks and South African rugby were a mess in 2016. Outside of the Lions in Super Rugby there was no joy in South African rugby.
Crowds were on the wane, pessimism was the only consistent and sponsors were running a mile from the Springboks.
The Springboks win in Port Elizabeth, in front of nearly 43 000 passionate South African rugby fans, gives substance to the reinvention of South African and Springbok rugby.
The leadership of South African rugby in 2016 was justifiably asked to front the mess. So too the Springbok coach and those players who wore the jersey through the darkest and most troubled times.
Mark Alexander, president of the South African Rugby Union, inherited a disaster from departed President Regan Hoskins. I was vocal in criticizing Alexander and Chief Executive Jurie Roux. I felt they were prominent only in their absence.
Why the silence? Where’s the solution?
Allister Coetzee, as coach, appeared out of his depth and the support staff and players selected produced results to support any view that they simply weren’t good enough.
Finally, Alexander and Roux started to speak publicly in 2017. They acknowledged the flaws in the system and the failures in South African rugby. They vowed to fix them. They spoke with calm and authority. They sought solutions and not knee-jerk reactions, and they were not swayed by public or media opinion.
At the time I wrote they should have been swayed by public opinion in getting rid of Coetzee, but they were of the belief that the coach had to be backed through greater investment in experienced support staff. They also created the position of National Teams (including the Springboks) Director of Rugby to lure back Rassie Erasmus, who had done wonders as the Head of Rugby at Munster, Ireland.
The appointment of Brendan Venter was huge in giving Coetzee a rugby soundboard and giving the Springbok management team one of the game’s best rugby tacticians.
Erasmus, like Venter, has always spoken firstly of being South African and wanting to make his best contribution to South African Rugby and the Springboks. He is expected back in a month’s time to take up his position.
Coetzee embraced every rugby decision. He remains the coach and the credit in four successive victories is his; just like the condemnation after losing to Italy was directed at him.
Take a moment to reflect on the good that is happening in our rugby and smile.
Heavyweight sponsors MTN and FNB have invested in the Springboks and the rugby public have also responded to the 2017 Springboks since the first up win against France in Pretoria.
It was a struggle to get 25 000 to Loftus in Pretoria for that opening Test and it needed a further win in Durban for the rugby public to believe again in Springbok rugby. A week later 55 000 made it to Emirates Airline Park for the third Test against France and the Nelson Mandela Bay in Port Elizabeth on Saturday was a handful shy of capacity.
The belief in South African rugby extended the Springboks. A Super Rugby record 63 000 filled Emirates Airline Park for the final against the Crusaders and nationally the country rallied behind the Lions.
South African rugby – on the field and in the boardroom – is on the rise.
The maturity of the game’s leadership to find resolution in the reduction of six to four South African Super Rugby teams has to be commended. South Africa’s leadership found an alternative that is ground breaking and offers commercial and sporting strength to the South African game with two teams playing in the Northern Hemisphere. Resolution has trumped revolution.
These are the most invigorating times in South African rugby since the on-field glory days of 2007 and 2009. Black and white players are the stars of this Springbok team and there is absolutely nothing grey in interpretation about the 2017 Springboks, who became the first Springbok team in 19 years and 234 Tests to beat a Tier One nation by more than 20 points in four successive Tests.
South African rugby is rampant again, significantly at a time when it is also bidding to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup and show the world why rugby remains a game akin to religion to the people of South Africa.