Rugby and South Africa share a storied history that deeply engrained itself in the fabric and healing of South Africa through the years. While always popular in the country, rugby is indicative of the growth and change the rainbow nation that is South Africa.
Rugby’s Early Beginnings
Rugby first found its way to the country with the English taking control from the Dutch. The Reverend George Ogilvie brought the sport’s original format, and the first game pitted the Army against the Civil Service in the summer of 1862. The press flocked to the new sport and a following ensued.
South Africa’s first rugby club was Hamilton RFC, a club that followed Rev. Ogilvie’s style of play. As more clubs formed over the following years, the game split between two styles of play–Rev. Ogilvie’s Winchester game and the new rugby code made popular by the likes of former England back William Henry Milton. When Milton joined the Villagers club in the later part of the 1870s, the shift towards the rugby code became unstoppable. The work of Milton and other early proponents of the sport helped the game grow to enough prominence that England brought its first tour to South Africa in 1891.
The sport’s incredible growth led to the Grand Challenge Cup becoming the nation’s first cup competition in 1883, and 1889 saw the founding of the South African Rugby Football Board to govern the growing sport.
The Springbok’s momentum continued for decades. The Springbok’s home defense was virtually unparalleled, as it went undefeated in a home series until 1974. And until 1992, the Springboks held winning records over all other nations in head-to-head competition.
Rugby and the Apartheid
Even as Apartheid started gripping the nation in 1948, the sport maintained its momentum for some time. However, it became a figurehead of sorts for the country’s racial discrimination. Largely viewed as a sport for South Africa’s white population, rugby was seen as another British invasion that began almost 200 years prior. The hostility for South African rugby extended across the globe as players consistently had objects hurled at them while they were on tour. This global ire resulted in bans from certain tournaments and countries where Apartheid was deemed unacceptable.
Despite the Springboks having their first black player, Errol Tobias, join the squad in 1981 it did not end Apartheid or the nation’s global scrutiny. Thus, the country was banned from most international play, including two World Cups, until Apartheid was lifted. It would take until 1994 for the practice to end in South Africa.
While non-white South Africans certainly played the sport, the negative view towards the sport did not wane until 1995.
Nelson Mandela’s Lasting Impact
With the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, South Africa’s age of Apartheid ended. The following year brought the Rugby World Cup back to the country. In front of a home crowd, the Springboks made it to the finals against New Zealand. While what happened on the field certainly mattered, Rugby’s lasting impact on South Africa occurred after the match. In the build up to the match, Mandela rallied the country behind the team as a show of South African unity. When the day of the final arrived, Mandela surprised the squad and much of the nation by proudly wearing the number six shirt of the nation’s captain, Francois Pienaar, a white man. South Africa would go on to win the tournament in front of their home fans.
Beyond wearing Pienaar’s shirt, Mandela presented the title to Pienaar after the Springboks win–cementing one of the country’s most iconic moments after years of racial inequality. The moment would be the inspiration for the film Invictus.
Pienaar would forge a deep relationship that led to Mandela being the godfather of his children. Their bond ran so deep that at Mandela’s memorial service in 2013, Pienaar’s children told him that he could only wear one thing to show his love for the man–his team jacket.
Today, domestic and international rugby dreams run through the hearts and minds of countless aspiring South Africans. A perennial international force in the game, the Springboks’ green and gold squad bring a challenge every match. In addition to international competition, domestic squads compete against New Zealand and Australian squads in the Super Rugby competition. Played during the same time as the Super Rugby tournament, the Vodacom Cup provides a platform for young athletes that may not receive such attention otherwise. Additionally, clubs across South Africa compete for the Currie Cup–the nation’s elite provincial cup.
To say rugby is a part of the nation’s fabric would be an understatement. From South Africa’s darkest era to its powerful public healing to the future–rugby represents South Africa’s ability to prosper while asserting itself across the globe as an international presence. Barring an unheard-of change in sentiment, rugby will continue on as a staple in South African culture.