There was a moment ahead of last week's Test against Wales when South African rugby supporters held their breath.
There was a moment ahead of last week’s Test against Wales when South African rugby supporters held their breath.
The South African Rugby Union (Saru) had rushed through a change of kit in a belated attempt to placate a few mealy-mouthed politicians. Rumour had it that the new jersey would have the Springbok moved from above the heart to the opposite side, with the Protea now in pride of place.
If true, this would create a problem. Springbok players had been accustomed to placing their right hand over the Springbok during the singing of the national anthem. Would they now happily embrace the flower, or would they show their support for the traditional emblem by clutching it with their left hand?
Or would they, in a misguided attempt at political correctness, grab the Protea with the right hand, the Springbok with the left and stand there looking like an advert for a Cross Your Heart bra? Anthem time at the Millennium Stadium left us none the wiser, for the entire squad emerged in tracksuits and there was still no telling what they had on underneath.
But match time revealed all. The emblem was unchanged, with a stylised Springbok above the heart and below the Protea. Oh yes, let’s not forget that the Protea has been part of the national rugby team’s emblem for years.
As far back as 1994 the Springbok could be seen jumping over a wreath of Proteas. That particular version of the emblem was binned after the 1995 Rugby World Cup. No doubt someone climbing up the greasy pole of politics thought it an improper metaphor: the Springbok, aka Afrikaner hegemony, leaping over the Protea, aka the downtrodden masses.
For several seasons now the Protea has been on top and the Springbok below, a much more acceptable depiction of South Africa post apartheid. Except that for some people the jersey will remain beyond the pale for as long as the Springbok remains part of it.
It has been alleged that there were commercial reasons for the emblem displayed in Cardiff remaining as it was for the Tri-Nations Tests earlier in the year. Saru’s attempt to split the Springbok from the Protea was stymied by kit sponsor Canterbury, who were unwilling to lose their spot above the right nipple.
And therein lies a whole can of worms. Today’s Springbok rugby players are walking billboards. Principal sponsor Sasol has pride of place in large letters across the middle of the jersey. Canterbury has the right breast, Saru’s Springbok emblem the left, the flag of South Africa is on the left sleeve and there’s a star on the right sleeve.
The star is a new addition. It represents the acronym Stand Together Against Racism, a new initiative adopted by Saru and several other rugby-playing nations. The trouble is that the green and white star emblazoned on the Springbok jersey looks for all the world like the national emblem of Pakistan. Saru had best tread carefully: sending out mixed signals like that could make the Springbok emblem debate look like a pensioners’ tea party.
Fortunately the quality of Saturday’s game made all the posturing over the jersey irrelevant. The Springboks won the first half and lost the second. Chances were made and squandered by both sides and the world champions had just enough mental strength to prevail against a Welsh side that doesn’t yet quite believe how good it is.
It was all very different 14 years ago when Kitch Christie took the Boks on tour. Against Wales at the old Cardiff Arms Park, it was the Springboks who didn’t know how good they were nine months ahead of World Cup glory. It took a great piece of finishing by Chester Williams to wrap matters up and the final score, 20-12 to South Africa, was as fair a reflection of proceedings as last week’s 20-15.
In 1994 the Boks played Scotland ahead of Wales and it was at Murrayfield that Joost van der Westhuizen announced himself. He scored a classic scrumhalf blindside try and then got one that only Joost could dream of. Surrounded by Scottish forwards on the 22m line he ducked a couple of stiff arms and swerved under the posts to score.
The post-isolation Springboks have never looked like succumbing to Scotland, but the unthinkable happened under Rudolf Straeuli in 2002.
Straeuli had scored a try of his own in Joost’s game in 1994, but on a damp and blustery day in Edinburgh eight years later his team lost to a bunch of no-hopers. The nadir came when Andre Pretorius lost the ball behind his own goal line and the Scots scored the try that made the game safe.
It is inconceivable that the same could happen again this week, despite the terrible weather predicted. Scotland lost heavily to a second-string All Blacks side last week, while Peter de Villiers has given his entire match 22 a vote of confidence by announcing an unchanged side.
That means another go for John Smit at tighthead and Ruan Pienaar at flyhalf. Smit emerged bloodied but unbowed on Saturday without ever suggesting that he might relish finishing his career with the number three on his back. It was the great Os du Randt who, when asked if he might like to swap sides in the scrum, said: “No. You have to be mad to play tighthead.”
Pienaar was a success at flyhalf, but there were a number of defensive lapses close to the rucks and mauls that didn’t happen when Butch James wore the number 10 jersey.
The player who would have breathed a sigh of relief when his name was read out by the coach on Monday was Pierre Spies. The Bulls eighth man is a shadow of the dynamic player who burst on the scene two years ago and only an eye-catching display against the Scots will stop Ryan Kankowski from being in the starting line-up against England next week.