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07 Sep 2007 08:08
Australia beat England at the 1991 Rugby World Cup final, but in the South Stand at Twickenham lurked a couple of fellows who held up a banner emblazoned with this motto: “South Africa, the real World Champions”.
As it turned out, the blazers of the International Rugby Board (IRB) had met during the second World Cup to debate the re-entry of the Springboks into the international fold.
The chaps in the South Stand were not to know, of course, but just 10 months after Nick Farr-Jones lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy, his team was running out to play the Springboks at Newlands.
In those far-off times the strength or otherwise of South African rugby was a matter of learned debate. Through the decade that the international ban was in place the domestic game remained strong, but Farr-Jones’s Wallabies showed exactly how much ground the Springboks had to make up by hammering them 26-3.
It took three years, but the Boks made up the ground well enough to succeed the Wallabies as World Champions in 1995.
In the opening match of that tournament, Kitch Christie’s team produced a rousing display to win 27-18. The opponent? Australia. The venue? Newlands. That’s how far they had come.
There were a few swings and roundabouts ahead, but it’s fair to say that the Springboks of 1998 were clearly the best side in the world and that the 1999 World Cup came a year too late.
Even so, Nick Mallett’s side had chances to win in extra time in the semifinal against Australia (again).
Indeed there are those who will swear to this day that Stephen Larkham was only looking to put the ball dead when he connected with such a whack from the halfway line that the ball flew low and straight between the Twickenham uprights.
By 2003 things had changed. The purblind administrators of the (then) South African Rugby Football Union (Sarfu) found an excuse to sack Mallett, the best coach the Springboks have ever had, and replace him with Harry Viljoen.
When Viljoen proved conclusively that success in business does not translate easily into coaching a sports team, Sarfu jerked its collective knee once more and appointed Rudolph Straeuli.
A capable coach and administrator, Straeuli was promoted above his competency and hung out to dry. Accordingly, when the Boks departed for the 2003 World Cup having been physically and mentally humiliated by their own management team, it was only a matter of time before the same happened on the field of play.
At the send-off banquet the great Morne du Plessis spoke movingly about what lay ahead of the Boks, not knowing that the excesses of Kamp Staaldraad already lay behind them. “Enjoy your youth,” said Du Plessis, “Enjoy the adventure.” If only that had been possible.
Instead, Corne Krige had the misfortune to lead a team vilified at home and when it returned, tail between legs, heads rolled like a latter-day French Revolution.
Four years on and another tasteless send-off banquet later, Jake White’s team departed this week in a very different frame of mind.
White, it may be remembered, was Mallett’s deputy for much of his reign and applied for the Springbok coaching job three times before he got it.
After conspicuous success in his first year in charge, followed by some in and out performances in years two and three, the World Cup was almost taken away from White by more internecine bickering in the halls of Saru.
He survived to utter these lines upon arrival in Paris: “I worked out my starting line-up four years ago.
It has changed here and there, because of injuries and other circumstances.” Bold words, indeed, on the eve of the biggest tournament in the game.
A slip against Samoa or England and White may have egg all over his face. After all, we only have management’s word for it that captain John Smit is fit to play his first game of rugby since limping off against Australia at Newlands in July.
Funny how that venue and opponent keeps recurring. But assuming Smit is fit and remains so, White’s team has as good a chance as anyone of lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy.
Consider the following names and then ask yourself if any other international side would be better off without them: Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Jean de Villiers and Bryan Habana.
A third of the team consists of great players and now that the coach has put his penchant for picking Ashwin Willemse on ice, the rest of the first team has an enviable look of accomplishment to it.
The draw has been kind. Two games in six days against serious opposition and then the best part of a month to rest for the A team before a probable quarterfinal against Wales.
In the words of Noel Coward, bad times are just around the corner, so now is the time to celebrate the fact that a South African team entering a major tournament is in serious contention for top honours.
Win this one and we can forget, for a long, glorious moment, about politics.
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