Springboks have made ‘winning ugly’ beautiful

Springboks have made ‘winning ugly’ beautiful
South Africa players take atimeout at training today ahead of tomorrow’s World Cup final. The Boks are chasing a first World Cup since 2007. Picture:Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty

There is no escaping what the symbolism of Siya Kolisi lifting the Webb Ellis Cup could mean for South Africa, given his well-documented story of poverty to success.

In a Rugby World Cup filled with good news stories and tragedy after Typhoon Hagibis, Kolisi’s rags-to-riches tale would fit well into the lexicon of this extraordinary tournament in Japan.

It would be a hugely symbolic moment and one that would do a great deal for South Africa’s fractured society, which is divided on fissures of obscene wealth existing side-by-side with extreme poverty.

Kolisi has come from the latter and he now fits comfortably into an upper middle class existence given his fame and fortune from rugby. Yet he will always be that battling child from the township of Zwide, who went to bed starving more times than he’d like to remember.

Those memories shaped him and define his existence as a rugby player. He wants to succeed to provide hope to children like him. Raising the gold trophy in Yokohama on Saturday would be a huge step to reaching those marginalised members of society he so naturally connects with.

He also heads a Springbok team that truly represents a cross-section of South African society and one that has captured the imagination of the entire nation with each passing match at RWC 2019.

Even the aging Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu was moved to send his wishes to Kolisi and the team in a letter today.

“Captain of the nation, Siya Kolisi, ou (old) Rassie, Chessie, en al die manne (and all the men): Siyabulela! Ngiyabonga! Thank you!

“Your dignity, diversity and courage are infectious. You have restored South African rugby’s pride, and made us all feel good about ourselves. A World Cup final is a highly pressured environment, but if you feel weightless when you run onto that Yokohama field on Saturday it will be because you are being carried by the love, respect, and prayers of 56 million of us at home.

“You have already won! God bless you.” But for all the hope and symbolism that Kolisi brings, he knows more than anyone that England will not easily break. Nothing will be given because a narrative demands it. Kolisi and his 22 teammates will have to go out and win the title from the world’s number one ranked team.

England’s clinical dismantling of the All Blacks was undoubtedly the best 80-minute performance of the tournament. Last week counts for little though, which is why, what feels like mass hysteria over the Boks’ ‘anti-rugby’ style is a little overblown.

Yes, last week’s 19-16 win over Wales was not easy on the eye for non-South Africans, but few people have stopped to ask why Wales fired no shots themselves. Wales decided to get into an arm-wrestle with the Boks, who gladly accepted the challenge and eventually ground them down.

Had Wales showed the ambition most pundits are saying the Boks lacked, it would’ve drawn a response from the men in green and gold.

Jones’s men are rightly been lauded for their form going into the final but in 2019 the comparisons between the two finalists as remarkably similar.

The Boks have played 11 Tests this year, won nine, lost one and drawn one. They won the Rugby Championship and their average winning score this year is 36-11.

England have played 14 Tests this year, won 11, lost two and drawn one with an average winning score of 35-14. The real questions are: do the Boks have more in their armoury than they’ve shown and did England peak last week?

Eddie Jones was naturally dismissive of Wales coach Warren Gatland’s observation that it would be difficult to replicate that performance against the All Blacks for a second week running. Although Jones made a joke about it, it’s a valid point.

The Boks though, have been happy to talk England up this week. “That England-New Zealand semi-final was just a great game to watch,” forward’s coach Matt Proudfoot said. “We just looked at that performance as a team and thought ‘Wow’.

“We’re approaching the final as another footie game. England will be better than they were against New Zealand and we will have to handle them.” The Boks can certainly improve and their attack will already better simply by having Cheslin Kolbe starting at wing again. In a match likely to be decided by one score, he could be the difference in a tight game.

The Springbok bench with its now familiar 6-2 split between backs and forwards has been a key difference in all of their games at the tournament, and if the game is tight after an hour on Saturday, things might become increasingly tight for England.

If there is one thing this Boks team has learnt in the 25 Tests under Erasmus – especially in 2019 – it’s winning games that matter. The opening match of RWC 2019 against the All Blacks six weeks ago didn’t really matter in terms of advancing past the Pool stage. When it’s really counted, they have delivered.

“The guys have matured a great deal,” Proudfoot said. “They’ve become a very experienced group that has learned to solve problems on the pitch. Our coaching philosophy has been to empower these guys to handle the situation as it unfolds.

“It’s a final and either side will favour their own approach. Both teams will be looking to step up and simply do what they do better. That’s certainly how we’ve gone about things this week.” The Springbok team that emerges from the tunnel on Saturday is comfortable in its skin and unapologetic about its style and mission. South Africa is a beautiful place but it also has an ugly side.

Siya Kolisi’s men have made winning ugly, beautiful.

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