/ 23 December 2023

The good, the bad and the Boks

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Springbok flyhalf Handré Pollard Photos: Craig Mercer/Getty Images

Our final story of the year begins in Albany on Auckland’s North Shore in New Zealand long ago, where the Springboks have just been beaten 57-0 by the All Blacks. With the 2019 World Cup two years away, the result marks the beginning of the end for Bok coach Allister Coetzee, a man who was given a job but was never given his employers’ blessing.

Coetzee’s job goes to Rassie Erasmus, who up and leaves his job at Munster in Ireland with precipitous haste. One of Erasmus’ more astute decisions is to dispense with Coetzee’s chosen flyhalf Elton Jantjies. 

He plumps, instead, for Handré Pollard. The former Paarl Gimnasium schoolboy is cooler than a pink drink on a hot day.

Pollard, who has inspired comparisons with the great Naas Botha, plays in the 2019 World Cup final against England in Yokohama. When Coetzee was coach, playing in the final looked as remote as Reykjavik, but Erasmus is as big a revelation as Pollard himself. The 2019 final is won and Erasmus’ successor, Jacques Nienaber, essentially takes the same side — now older, more battered and wiser — to this year’s World Cup in France. 

Pollard isn’t part of the initial group because of a calf injury, but Malcolm Marx, a hooker, gets badly injured and Pollard sneaks in through the back door. So begins one of the great debates in South African sport: should Manie Libbok, who has played with a kind of heady insouciance in the early matches (think of his “no-look” kick to Kurt-Lee Arendse against Scotland) be persisted with? Or should Pollard waltz into the starting line-up given that Libbok’s place-kicking is erratic. 

In the end, the Bok management does the right thing. Given that Libbok is the incumbent, it persists with him and puts Pollard on the bench as back-up. The decision seems sensible enough but in the white-hot heat of battle it begins to be seriously stress-tested. 

South Africa are nowhere against England in the 2023 semi-final. They’re dreadful under the high-ball and can’t even catch the damn thing. Up in the stands Nienaber is paralysed. Erasmus seems bereft of ideas. Back home watching in South Africa you can actually feel the dream slip away.

Enter Felix Jones, the cerebral Irishman Erasmus has brought with him from Munster. A man alone on a frozen bench, Jones acts. He demands that Libbok, who is not at his best, be replaced by Pollard. It is the 31st minute of what is fast becoming a nightmare; four minutes later Pollard succeeds with his first penalty. The Boks go into the dressing-room at half-time 12-6 down.

In the 43rd minute Cobus Reinach is replaced by Faf de Klerk at scrumhalf. Faf and Handré go together like Fikile Mbalula and hyperbole, bunny chow and atchar, shisa nyama and ginger beer. With Faf and Handré together, the Boks have a chance, although the chance recedes again when Owen Farrell, who is playing immaculately at flyhalf for England, pots a massive drop-kick in the 53rd minute to give England a 15-6 lead.

The second half drags on but sequences of play are also over before you realise they’ve happened. It’s too painful to look but you must, otherwise you can’t see what’s happening. What to do? Look? Or look with your hands over your eyes? An entire nation can’t watch what is about to become the most incredible passage of play since Lukhanyo Am’s “blind” pass to Makazole Mapimpi in the 2019 World Cup final.

With Jones acting, Nienaber regains some of his poise. He brings on a raft of second-half changes, although the score is still locked at 15-6 to England. One of them is Deon Fourie, a utility forward who, late in his career, is experiencing an Indian summer. 

With 13 minutes to go and even Pollard beginning to get jittery with angst, the Springboks win a penalty; Pollard kicks it deep for a South African throw into the line-out; Bongi Mbonambi finds RG Snyman and the Bok forwards maul it up; Fourie busts off the back of the maul like a hyperactive meerkat with the ball tucked under his arm. He’s scragged metres from the England line. The ball is recycled on the Bok side and Snyman corkscrews over, bouncing Jonny May off his chest like a rag doll in the process.

Pollard leaves the best for last. With two minutes to go in the match and the Springboks trailing 13-15, the referee awards the men in green and gold a penalty after a dominant Bok scrum. We are told that the kick is 49 metres from the posts but Pollard, so self-assured, thumps the kick with such confidence that he could be kicking from right in front. Prize-winning novels will be written about the kick in future years.

The Boks repeat the trick in the final against New Zealand, with Pollard again playing a starring role. The World Cup victory brings some much-needed respite to a country in the throes of daily load-shedding. Folk talk about nothing else for weeks; they relive the World Cup in the heady present tense. Everywhere you look you can see the light in people’s eyes.

A couple of weeks later and the Proteas play in the 50-over World Cup in India, beating England, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka on their way to second place after the round-robin phase of the tournament. 

Quinton de Kock — known as “Quinnie” to his legion of fans — has announced beforehand that these are his last 50-over matches for his country. He scores four centuries in the tournament but goes cheaply to a tumbling catch by Australian skipper, Pat Cummins, in the semi-final. Sport, you think to yourself at the time, is not simply cruel, it is diabolical.

David Miller plays a lone hand in scoring a defiant 100 against the Aussies in the semi-final, but South Africa are 40 or 50 runs short of a commanding total. They bowl with skill and courage; they catch well. It isn’t enough. They have batted poorly after their skipper has won the toss and chosen to bat. It might be a mistake. Nobody knows, although they pretend they do.

In the final, Australia beat favourites India in their backyard. It is like stealing into the presidential palace in the dead of night, drinking the wine, fornicating with the servants and, for good measure, stealing the cutlery. All of cricket-loving India is aghast.

In the winter, back in New Zealand, where our story started, Banyana Banyana have gone to their second World Cup under Desiree Ellis. 

Ellis has come a long way. As a player for the national women’s team she was told to wear cast-off shirts from the men’s team. She once played in an international against Zimbabwe in which the entire team changed in a parking lot.

Now it’s different. Although it’s cold in New Zealand, Banyana blow hot. In atrocious conditions they lose by a goal to Sweden in their opening game before holding Argentina 2-all in their second. They leave the best for last. Against Italy, Thembi Kgatlana scores in injury time to win the game 3-2 for Banyana and catapult them into the second round.

At the beginning of the tournament the players are embroiled in a spat with the South African Football Association and at one point it looks as if they might not board the World Cup plane. A last-minute solution is reached and although Banyana are beaten 2-0 by the Netherlands in the second round, the result is a fillip for women’s football. 

If only, mutter many, such a result was in the compass of the perennially under-achieving men.