When he gathered the Springboks before the Rugby Championship this year, Rassie Erasmus was so confident that he told them it was a 20-week journey. Nineteen weeks of rugby up to and including the RWC final and then another week for ticker tape parades and post-tournament celebrations.
Call it destiny, call it almost anything you like, but don’t call the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup 2019 triumph lucky.
It was anything but fortunate.
The sight of captain Siya Kolisi lifting the Webb Ellis Cup was an image that will sit comfortably alongside Nelson Mandela handing the same trophy to Francois Pienaar almost a quarter-of-a-century ago.
Kolisi, the township kid who spent much of his early youth going to sleep hungry because there was never enough food, has fed a nation with hope, joy and yes, love.
There are few more poignant sports stories than that of Kolisi and even though the chronicle of his early life has become a tale of hope, sadly there are many Kolisis still living in the shanty towns across South Africa today.
Mandela’s dream of a Rainbow Nation has stalled under the weight of corruption, incompetence and avarice, but South Africa is nothing if not resilient.
It is nothing if not forgiving. And in a small way, Kolisi’s Springboks’ victory rekindled that kernel of hope.
They showed resilience to come back from rock bottom two years ago and the South African public showedforgiveness for all their humiliations to come out and cheer their beloved green and gold again.
Kolisi’s men reconnected with an adoring public, and in so doing connected a diverse range of people to each other over the common bond of rugby. And because of who Kolisi is, everyone was included, from the homeless to the elite. Kolisi is everyone and everyone is Kolisi.
His poignant speech minutes after the final whistle revealed how far he has come and how much he has grown. It revealed that he wasn’t immune to the importance of his own story, and what the Boks had achieved, but that he also wasn’t burdened by it.
“We’ve faced a lot of challenges, but the people of South Africa have gotten behind us, and we are so grateful for the people of South Africa,” Kolisi said.
“We have so many problems in our country, but to have a team like this … we come from different backgrounds, different races and we came together with one goal and wanted to achieve it. I really hope that we’ve done that for South Africa to show that we can pull together and achieve something.
“Since I’ve been alive, I’ve never seen South Africa like this. The coach told us before the last game, ‘We’re not playing for ourselves anymore; we’re playing for our people back home’.
That’s what we wanted to do today and we really appreciate all the support. People in the taverns, people in farms and homeless people and people in rural areas. Thank you so much; we appreciate all the support. We love you South Africa, and we can achieve anything if we work together as one.
My colleagues at Daily Maverick in South Africa covered many angles of the story and certainly one of the most moving was of a Cape Town homeless shelter that erected a big screen and served a hot meal for the city’s most vulnerable to share in the moment.
Kolisi’s inclusion of the homeless in his speech was touching because it really showed his connection to the most marginalised of society.
And it didn’t go unnoticed either. “It took me a second to realise that he actually knew that we were doing it for the homeless people as well … What a World Cup, I’ll never forget this one, that’s for sure,” said Danny Diliberto, the founder of Ladies of Love, who run the shelter.
If Kolisi has been the conductor that connected the team to the people, coach Rassie Erasmus has been the engineer of the circuit board that made it possible.
What he and his staff achieved in less than two years was nothing short of astounding. It’s not like he took over a team that was purring along nicely. It was a wreck in someone’s back garden, rusted and overgrown with weeds.
Erasmus cleared out the mess and started again. The Boks needed direction and the players needed to take stock of their attitudes.
Talent and opportunity were not enough. Taking home a healthy salary did not make them ‘professional’. He met with them and told them so.
Passengers and those that didn’t want to make the necessary sacrifices, those that failed to do the analysis required and those that failed to reach the tough physical benchmarks he set, fell by the wayside.
Honesty was the currency Erasmus dealt in and in turn, he gave loyalty and confidence to his squad.
He told them in 2018 that they would lose matches as part of a bigger plan. He explained that he would change starting lineups in an effort to fast track the need for Test experience and depth. And when he whittled the group down to his final 38 from which the eventual RWC squad would come, all the players knew exactly where they stood in the pecking order.
When he gathered the team before the Rugby Championship this year, Erasmus was so confident that he told them it was a 20-week journey. Nineteen weeks of rugby up to and including the RWC final and then another week for ticker tape parades and post-tournament celebrations.
Set piece superiority, defence and an astute kicking game were prioritised and from that holy trinity, layers have been added. The scary thing is this Springbok team is only at the beginning of its journey.
Winning RWC 2019 is not an end, just a stop on a track that has all of South Africa invested in its progress. Erasmus will move away from the day-to-day running of the team but his fingerprints will be all over it for years to come.
And in Kolisi, the Boks have the man to lead the team on the next challenge of consistent world domination. And on this journey, they will have 57 million supporters, every step of the way.