The Inconvenient Springboks

South Africa's lock Eben Etzebeth (L) holds off Argentina's scrum half Tomas Cubelli during the bronze medal match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup between South Africa and Argentina at the Olympic Stadium, east London, on October 30, 2015. AFP PHOTO / FRANCK FIFE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE, NO USE IN LIVE MATCH TRACKING SERVICES, TO BE USED AS NON-SEQUENTIAL STILLS (Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)

The Inconvenient Springbok

You’re going to need your tinfoil hat for this alternative view on the inconvenient Springboks and how they were duped into an identity crisis.

From 1891 to 2010 the Springboks were a feared rugby force. Not even the All Black juggernaut was immune to the irrepressible apprehension of facing off against the mighty Springboks.

South African Rugby had a 120-year history of physical and psychological dominance in world rugby. The Springboks were abrasive, hard and intimidating masters of the dark arts. However, almost forgotten under the green mist of rugby lore were world-class play makers like Danie Craven, Mannetjies Roux, Danie Gerber, Frik du Preez, Andre Joubert and Naas Botha.

The Springboks were first and foremost an iron-cast green rugby machine that prided itself on physical dominance, set piece excellence and supremacy at the contact point. With this platform the Springboks were able to release players such as those above and the results spoke for themselves. The physical dominance and abrasiveness wore so visibly on the opposition that it made recollection of the Springboks ability to exhibit flair and expanse a literal WebMD definition for post traumatic amnesia.

Strategic Coffee Stain

Somewhere around the turn of the 21st century, television executives and rugby boards’ scrambling for more tries and a looser game to entice increased market share and revenue, decided that the Springboks were an inconvenient coffee stain on their strategic visions.

Broadcasters, media, sponsors and almost everyone with the exception of those actually playing the game decided unanimously that the game of rugby had changed and the Springboks were no longer relevant. With that said irrelevance the Springboks weren’t going to be competitive, were going to stop winning rugby matches, and even if they did win, it would only be a matter of time before the Springbok rendered itself extinct.

To say that the game has changed and now South African Rugby too must change is absolute nonsense. For that statement to be true, the game needed to have changed more in ten years than it had in the previous 100. Rugby is still, before anything else, a contact sport. Rugby is still a game of physical domination, in whatever form that may take. Rugby is still about scoring more points than the opposition. The fundamentals have not changed.

The nuanced changes around tactical game play and strategy are no more augmented than that of the disparity of the Springboks balance between physical prowess and expansive flair. If you think carefully about it, the gaps are not wider than the sum of the change that has been suggested.

Fundamental problems in SA Rugby

Now, no one will willingly disagree that the general Skill level of the Springboks are below those of their New Zealand counter parts. And yes, there is a lot of work to do in that area, which flows down to developmental issues at grass roots. The exchange rate, politics and rapidly swirling player drain are all compounding problems that plague South African rugby at near biblical proportions.

The problem though is that South Africa started believing they were playing an inferior game, and that the ingrained DNA in their rugby make-up was rotten. Where in fact, the Springboks were simply an inconvenience in the surge to a provide a more attractive showpiece for larger television audiences.

Case in point on the power of television executives over world rugby is the illustrious bonus point. The try scoring reward system, or creativity carrot point, wasn’t born out of player frustration at lack of reward for running in tries; it was birthed from the pages of focus groups and marketing executives. As budget forecasts expand and shareholders demand more, the four-try bonus point is now not enough to compete with Devious Maids and Kardashian reruns. 2016 saw the introduction of the three-try gap bonus point. A concept so insanely stupid that it can simultaneously reward and punish a team based purely on how entertaining the game is to viewers, with absolutely no relevance to on-field strategy. A concept more at home on an episode of Top Gear’s Ambitious but Rubbish, than at the top end of a professional global sport.

Springbok Identity Crisis

This DNA identity crisis, created by going against the grain of what rugby in South Africa is fundamentally about, is the biggest immediate hurdle facing the Springboks. The time has come to be proud of the rugby history, heritage and lore that have come before and embrace it as an integral part of the Springbok DNA. Not some cancerous growth that must be removed at all costs. South African Rugby is the property of the millions of fans and players that call themselves South Africans, it does not belong to a handful of television and brand executives who profit from our love of the game.

Finally we would do well to remember that success is measured by just that, success. How you get there is ultimately inconsequential when the history books are opened a century from now.

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