Boks are villains of the piece

The Springboks are used to being the pantomime villains of world rugby. Their bruising style, proclivity for controversy and yes, success, make them a team everybody loves to hate.

Boks are villains of the piece

The Springboks are used to being the pantomime villains of world rugby. Their bruising style, proclivity for controversy and yes, success, make them a team everybody loves to hate.

But this weekend they are really going to feel unloved. Playing against host nation Japan in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals in Japan will ensure that every non-South African, and a few South Africans too, will be against them.

Japan are the fairytale story of the World Cup. And no one wants a fairytale to end unhappily. Except the Springboks, of course.

They are the wicked stepmother, the ugly stepsisters and Lord Farquaad all rolled into one.

After beating Ireland and Scotland in Pool A play with a combination of manic defence and an off-loading game that would not look out of place if they were wearing black and playing in Auckland, Japan have won hearts.

The way the country rallied through the devastating effects of Typhoon Hagibis has also won over fans.

The Japanese rugby team has galvanised a country reeling from a natural disaster, showing off sports’ ability to bond and heal a nation.

Ironically, in a different way, the Springboks did the same when they won the 1995 tournament on home soil one year after South Africa’s first democratic elections.

Aside from New Zealand, Japan are the form team on the planet at World Cups, having won seven of their last eight matches over 2015 and 2019.

They attracted more than 60m television viewers in their home country while beating Scotland 28-21 to secure top place in Pool A.

The marketing and broadcast people don’t want Japan to go out either.

This, of course, is something of as grudge match too, given what happened in Brighton four years ago.

In case, like most South Africans, you’ve forgotten, Japan beat the Springboks 34-32 for the biggest upset in rugby history. Maybe it was the biggest upset in sports history.

The Boks gained a measure of revenge beating Japan 41-7 in Kumagaya a week before the 2019 tournament started, but in the context of Sunday’s clash in Tokyo, it means little.

The Boks were at full strength that day while Japan coach Jamie Joseph was tinkering with his team. Sunday is the real revenge match.

There is another edge to the clash as well. There is a reasonably high level of animosity between the South African Rugby Union (SARU) and the Japanese Rugby Football Union (JRFU).

In 2018, the JRFU, whose composite team the Sunwolves play in the southern hemisphere’s Super 14 competition, voted against South Africa for the right to host RWC 2023.

Japan instead voted for France despite South Africa being the preferred candidate after an independent assessment of the bids, which also included Ireland.

All SARU asked was that countries voted for the bid that was deemed the best after the technical committee’s assessment.

Japan broke ranks with its SANZAAR (SA, NZ, Australia and Argentina Rugby) colleagues. That went down like two-week old sushi.

A combination of factors, not least of which was the JRFU’s vote, has led to the Sunwolves’ axing from Super Rugby. The 2020 season will be their last in the competition.

The Sunwolves though, didn’t help themselves on the field. They have won just eight of 62 matches, with 53 defeats and a draw for a 13% winning ratio.

On any given Saturday, two-thirds of their players aren’t Japanese. They have become a virtual Barbarians side stacked full of foreign journeymen.

It does little to develop depth in Japanese rugby.

Perhaps, if the JRFU had played ball, there might have been more appetite to find ways to keep the Sunwolves in Super Rugby. But the deal is done.

All that remains is for the Cherry Blossoms to exact a form of revenge by beating the Boks.

That, of course, won’t be easy. Under coach Rassie Erasmus the Boks are organised and confident.

They won’t be complacent like they were four years ago because Japan have earned respect through their performances on the field.

The Springboks, barring a narrow loss to the All Blacks in game one of the tournament, have cruised along with massive wins and few injuries.

They go into the match having not played for 12 days, so they are well rested. Japan are coming off a titanic struggle against the Scots.

But for all the serenity in Japan, Bok lock Eben Etzebeth is still fighting a battle to clear his name after an alleged altercation at a bar in a town called Langebaan, about 120km north of Cape Town.

Etzebeth is accused of using a racial slur against a man and of assaulting him. These are claims he denies and so far, there have been no criminal charges brought against Etzebeth seven weeks after the alleged incident.

But the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) instituted legal proceedings against Etzebeth via the Equality Court in an unusual move considering they had not completed an investigation into the complaints.

The Equality Court has the power to dish out remedial sentencing such as forcing an apology or for a person to attend anger management or race-building courses.

Etzebeth, on Monday, launched a counter-attack by approaching the Gauteng High Court to have the legal proceedings at the Equality Court set aside and for the SAHRC to conduct a “proper investigation”.

He claims that the entire process has been prejudicial and unlawful.

“I met with commission members on August 29, 2019, the day before I was to leave for Japan with the Springbok rugby team,” Etzebeth stated in his affidavit to the High Court.

“I attended this meeting on less than 24 hours’ notice, and under threat of criminal sanction if I did not do so.

“At that meeting, I was given an undertaking that the matter would be investigated, and that I would be provided with the details of the complaint against me and given an opportunity to respond in full, once I returned from the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

“This did not happen. Instead, the commission decided abruptly to terminate its investigation.

"It says it has brought proceedings against me in the Equality Court and has conducted an aggressive media campaign against me.

“Its representatives have accused me of hate speech; assault and attempted murder. They have said publicly that I should be in jail, that the commission would make sure that I “do not get away with it again”.

“And they say all this without having conducted a proper investigation into the complaint made against me, without informing me of the allegations against me, and without having heard my response to those allegations.

“I submit that the commission’s conduct is unlawful.”

There aren’t too many rugby players who will go into a massive match with hours spent giving statements to lawyers as part of his preparation.

But that is the mad world of South Africa and South African rugby.

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