Paul Kilfoil's World of Travel, Technology & Sport

Posted on  by Paul Kilfoil.
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South Africa has a long and proud history in the sport of Rugby Union (sometimes called Rugby Football). Legend has it that this 15-a-side game was created in 1823 when a schoolboy at Rugby School in England, during a game of football (soccer), picked up the ball and ran with it. Although this story is almost certainly not true, the new game was named after Rugby School and the schoolboy, William Webb Ellis, has been immortalized by having the Rugby World Cup trophy named after him.

Rugby was introduced to a number of British colonies but it really took off in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. South Africa's first international match was on 30 July 1891 against a combined team from the British Isles, who convincingly beat the colonists 4-0 [Aside : The scoring and playing rules of rugby have changed substantially over the years; back in 1891, 4-0 would have been considered a significant margin of victory]. South Africa lost its first six matches in a row before recording a 5-0 victory over the British Isles in 1896.

But the small colony of rugby players at the southern tip of Africa learned fast - between 1896 and 1990 South Africa dominated all other rugby-playing countries, winning more matches than it lost against every other team it played. The Springboks (as South Africa's national team was called) became a mighty force, feared by all opposition round the world. Even the powerful All Blacks (the popular name for New Zealand's national rugby team) were regularly beaten by South Africa - in the 37 matches played between these two rivals up to 1990, South Africa won 20 and lost only 15. In fact, New Zealand had never beaten South Africa in a series on South African soil.

But since 1990 things have not gone so well for the Springboks. South Africa did win the World Cup twice (1995 and 2007) and the Tri Nations three times (1998, 2004 and 2009), but generally they have played second-fiddle to New Zealand and Australia. Wales, who had not beaten South Africa in nearly 100 years of trying, have recorded three victories over the Springboks in recent years (1999, 2014 and 2016). Even Japan, very much a second-tier rugby-playing country, managed to beat South Africa in 2015. The trend was one of slow but steady deterioration, as South Africa's players, coaches and administrators failed to adjust to the way the laws of the game were changed to encourage skill, speed and fitness rather than physical size and brute power (South Africa's traditional strengths).

A headline on the web showcases a humiliating home defeat at the
hands of New Zealand in 2016. Note the scoring - NINE tries to NONE

In 2016 South Africa had their worst ever season of international rugby. The Springboks lost no less than eight of the twelve test matches they played, a percentage so staggeringly bad that in previous years it would have resulted in a national outcry. One of these defeats was a 57-15 humiliation at the hands of New Zealand, the biggest loss that South Africa had ever suffered in a home test match. They also lost for the very first time to both Argentina and Italy, countries that South Africa had previously been able to brush aside with impunity, and by December the Springboks had dropped to sixth place on the world rugby rankings - their worst ever position and below both Ireland and Wales. But the public in South Africa has by now become so de-sensitized to the continuing mediocrity of the national team that there was barely a whimper of outrage as defeat followed defeat.

What has caused this once proud rugby nation to descend to such depths? The reasons are many, but finding a solution to them is no easy task. So if you're a Springbok supporter (who knows, there may still be some of you left), I wouldn't hold my breath for a miraculous improvement in 2017 ...

  © Paul Kilfoil, Cape Town, South Africa