Sport may possess a boundless capacity to shock, but that has always been negated to some degree by any number of apparent certainties which inevitably wander into the territory of cliches.
Like England tanking at a World Cup, or how you can depend on Kerry and Kilkenny to be loitering around Croke Park with intent in early autumn.
Sometimes even these pillars of certainty crumble, though. Like when the German football team suddenly became sexy. The sheer incongruity of that took a while to sink in and now here we are again with a similar situation: a South African rugby team that is making a play to be the new style merchants of the world game.
The big, bad Boks! What is the world coming to?
The Springboks are up to all sorts of crazy stuff as they prepare to take on Ireland in Dublin tomorrow: Offloads, running from deep and scoring more tries per game this past two seasons than any other international team. For years, they have demanded the respect of the rugby world, but if coach Heyneke Meyer continues on like this he will have achieved the impossible: To make the Boks loveable. Jean Pierre Rives, the legendary French flanker, once remarked “the whole point of rugby is that it is, first and foremost, a state of mind, a spirit”. There has never been much debate as to what the Boks’s state of mind has ever been, individually or collectively, and it amounted to a motto along the lines of bosh first, ask questions later.
Stereotypical? Of course it is, but cliches become ingrained in the popular imagination for a reason and South Africa’s national side have done little to dissuade us of such overarching assumptions in the 123 years since they played their first ‘international’ against a British Isles side under the guise of the Cape Colony.
In 1955, for example, they toured New Zealand and lost in what author Chris Hewitt described in his book ‘The All Blacks: 100 years of attitude’ as “the most bitterly fought series in history”. Trawl through match reports from pretty much any decade and you are all but guaranteed to be met with a barrage of military analogies.
See? It’s unavoidable.
Former coach Rudolph Straeuli took that to extremes before the 2003 World Cup when he took his charges to the infamous Kamp Staaldraad where, among highly questionable practises, players were ordered to climb into a foxhole naked and sing the national anthem while ice-cold water was poured over their heads.
South Africa + rugby = tin hat time. Always has done. It is a reputation that was cemented with their exile from international competition during the apartheid era as it allowed legendary tales like those of the 1974 Lions and their ‘99’ call fill the gap. That love of confrontation and meat grinder rugby has continued into the modern day. It was summed up neatly by Conor O’Shea five years ago when the former Ireland international and current Harlequins coach told RTÉ that the Lions that finished the punishing second Test against the Boks at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria looked “more like a scene from ER as opposed to a rugby team”.
That was a South Africa side playing under the, ahem, guidance of coach Peter De Villiers whose ability to get up the noses of practically everybody during his time in charge only hardened another perception about the Boks — that of the aloof Afrikaner — even though he was the team’s first ever non-white coach.
De Villiers once remarked that he would never change his style as to do so would be to tell God that he had made a mistake when he created him. Everyone expected his successor, Meyer, to be a vast improvement when he took over in 2012, but no-one was prepared for what is something of a cultural revolution.
Meyer was your typical Afrikaner rugby man during his long service with the Blue Bulls. South African journalists talked this week about his monosyllabic press conferences and yet Meyer has been ‘Mr Personality’ in Dublin this week, his carefree attitude in public reflecting the attitude of a team that has drank pints and played golf.
That’s a long way removed from Kamp Staaldraad.
Meyer couldn’t help but laugh when asked by one Irish journalist if he is viewed as a risk-taker back home. His response was that the perception is actually very different. He is, he laughed, seen as “this dull Afrikaner, stupid, conservative guy”, but his actions have revealed that to be anything but.
Meyer hasn’t moved away from the traditional strengths of brute force and a booming kicking game. He has merely allied them with a more fluid running game that has made his side more dangerous and much easier to admire.
Of course, they could still decide to simply grind you to dust. We’ll see tomorrow.