Springboks captain Siya Kolisi poses for a portrait during the South Africa Rugby World Cup 2023 Squad photocall. Photo by Alex Livesey - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images
Twelve years ago, Namibian fullback Chrysander Botha stoically stared down the rampaging Tendai Mtawarira – a player at least 40 kilograms heavier. Botha was trampled. But he clung on to bring “The Beast” with him to the ground.
That tackle is often heralded as the bravest in World Cup history. It also embodies the story of African rugby outside of its southern climes; a story underwritten by sporadic moments of celebration but lacking a coherent plot. Look no further than the final scoreline of that day in 2011: 87-0 to South Africa.
At the next World Cup, in 2015, Namibia performed the herculean task of putting a try past New Zealand, then the most successful men’s sport team of all time. Progress perhaps, but progress that has yet to translate into a single win at the tournament. This year’s edition, in France, is the seventh consecutive time of asking for Namibia.
The story on the rest of the continent doesn’t read any better.
The divide in African rugby is stark: South Africa, winners of three of the last seven World Cups, on one end, and everybody else on the other.
Besides Namibia, Zimbabwe and Côte d’Ivoire are the only other two nations to have participated in the tournament – and neither of those was able to earn that elusive victory.
But this World Cup, perhaps more than any other, has rich subplots, thanks to a shift in mindsets and a deliberate injection of time and resources into the sport in countries like Argentina and Chile.
Not long ago, Argentina’s squads consisted primarily of students and part-timers. This weekend they opened against England as the favourites, ranked sixth in the world. (England, which invented the sport, is eighth, but beat the Puma’s 27 to 10). That radical transformation is the culmination of years of tiring but targeted grind.
Then there is the extraordinary tale behind the debut of Chile this year. The sport was first exported to South America’s west coast by British salt miners in the 1800s.
For the next century it largely dwelt in irrelevance: the national side was invariably thrashed whenever it took to the international field.
That all changed when former Uruguayan player Pablo Lemoine was appointed coach in 2018.
Under his vision, the Chileans set up the professional Santiago-based side Selknam, prioritised young, developing talent, and regularly faced up to higher levels of competition – the maxim “iron sharpens iron” is law in rugby. The result was two seemingly miraculous qualifying wins over Canada and the United States – and a ticket to France.
For countries like Kenya and Uganda, where interest in rugby is percolating, the roadmaps drawn by their counterparts in the global south should be of particular interest.
South Africa is peaking at just the right moment. The Springboks, the country’s national side famed for their bullying strength and aggression, are one of the favourites to go all the way. Doing so would set them clear of New Zealand’s All Blacks as the first men’s team to win the trophy four times.
Winning would also show the fruits of the Springboks’ often slow transformation journey.
The rugby team carries immense pressure from a nation that has little to show in other team sports – the men’s football and cricket teams have yet to win at a global level.
The Springbok badge was reviled on international pitches during apartheid and often booed on the field.
Today, many South Africans would argue it is a symbol of the unifying powers of sport. At the last World Cup, Siya Kolisi, the national side’s first black captain, triumphantly lifted the Webb Ellis Cup.
He is looking to do it again in France.