Springboks - The Long and Thorny Road to the Top

 By: Laurent Fabier
One of the highlights of this year's Rugby World Cup, to kick off in September is the presence of one of the most spectacular and controversial rugby teams in the world.

The Springboks (also named Springbokke in Afrikaans) is the more common name for the South African national rugby union team. Over the years, the Springboks have shared the turmoil of the country they represent, and made history with a series of more or less sports- related events. The Springboks play in green and gold jumpers and have been playing international rugby since 1891, when they debuted against a touring British Isles side in South Africa. The jersey has traditionally always had a gold collar. White shorts and green socks with two gold hoops, with the Canterbury logo in gold, make up the kit. The flag of South Africa can be seen on the sleeve. Today the Springboks are regarded as one of the best rugby nations in the world. The current head coach is Jake White, and the captain, John Smith.

A team that has survived turmoil over historical decades
Although they did not compete in the first two World Cups in the late 1980s and early 1990s due to sports boycotts of South Africa, the Springboks did make their debut in the 1995 World Cup, hosting it as well; they defeated the All Blacks in the final, which is now remembered as one of the greatest moments in South Africa's sporting history.

The history of the team is closely linked to the history of rugby in South Africa. When Canon George Ogilvie became headmaster of Diocesan College in Cape Town in 1861, he introduced the game of football, as played at Winchester School. This version of football, which included handling, is seen as the beginnings of rugby in South Africa.

Rugby began to be played in the Cape colony around 1875; the following year the first rugby club was formed. Former England international William Henry Milton arrived in Cape Town in 1878, he joined the Villagers club and started playing and preaching rugby. By the end of that year Cape Town had all but abandoned the Winchester game in favor of rugby. British colonists helped spread the game through the Eastern Cape, Natal and along the gold and diamond routes to Kimberley and Johannesburg. British troops would also play a key role in spreading the game throughout the country.

Paul Ross was the captain of the first Springbok team, which was largely dominated by players from the Western Province. The first tour of Britain took place in 1906 and took in 29 matches. England managed a draw, but Scotland was the only one of the Home unions to gain a victory. It was during this tour that the nickname 'Springboks was first used. At an impromptu meeting, the tour manager, officials and Paul Ross invented the nickname to prevent the British press from coining their own nickname. Historically the term 'Springbok' was applied to any team or individual representing South Africa in international competition regardless of sporting discipline. This tradition was abandoned with the advent of South Africa's new democratic government in 1994.

The Springboks and the New Zealand legendary All Blacks started a famous rivalry in 1921. The Springboks' tour of New Zealand was tense and competitive, with the test series being drawn. The All Blacks first toured South Africa in 1928, and again the test series finished level. In 1937 South Africa broke the deadlock with a series win in New Zealand and also in Australia. Only in 1996 did New Zealand finally win its first series in the Republic.

The Springbok tour to Britain and Ireland in 1969 was met with large anti-apartheid demonstrations wherever they went, and matches had to be played behind barbed wire fences. Massive anti-apartheid demonstrations greeted the South African rugby tour of Australia in 1971. The South African team had to be transported in Australian Air Force planes as the trade unions refused to service planes or trains transporting them. In 1977 the Commonwealth signed a document called the Gleneagles Agreement, which discouraged sporting contact with South Africa. In 1977, the segregated South African rugby unions merged and, four years later, Errol Tobias became the first non-white South African to represent his country when he took the field against Ireland.

After public opposition and international representations, the French government stopped the 1979 South African tour of France. Mass demonstrations greeted the South African tour of the United States in 1981, and put an end to similar tours.

In defiance of the Gleneagles agreement, the notorious 1981 tour of New Zealand went ahead. Although South Africa lost the series, the tour had ramifications far beyond rugby. As an indirect result of this tour, South Africa was banned by the International Rugby Board from international competitions until Apartheid ended.

South Africa sought to counteract its sporting isolation by inviting the South American Jaguars to tour. Eight matches were played between the two teams in the early 1980s. In 1985, a planned All Black tour of South Africa was stopped by the New Zealand High Court. An unofficial tour did take place in 1986 by a team including some but not the majority of All Black players, known outside South Africa as 'the Cavaliers', but advertised inside the Republic as the All Blacks.

A thorny road to victory crowns with 1995 historical win
In 1989, a World XV sanctioned by the International Rugby Board went on a mini-tour of South Africa. All bar New Zealand supplied players to the team with ten Welshmen, eight Frenchmen, six Australians, four Englishmen, one Scot and one Irishman.

Until the 1990s the Springboks had a positive win record against every nation they played. Following the demise of apartheid, the Springboks were readmitted to international rugby in 1992 but initially struggled to return to their previous high standards. There was a remarkable surge of support for the Springboks among the white and black communities in the lead-up to the 1995 Rugby World Cup. This was the first major event to be held in the country divided by apartheid. South Africans got behind the 'one team, one country' slogan, but the squad included only one "colored" player, Chester Williams.

By the time they hosted the 1995 World Cup, the Springboks were seeded ninth. They defeated Australia, Romania, Canada, Western Samoa and France to play in the final. South Africa won the epic final against New Zealand 15-12 at Ellis Park Stadium, when a drop goal by Joel Stransky secured victory in extra-time. The New Zealanders claimed to have been affected by a virulent food poisoning the day before the fixture. Suspicions fell on the South African rugby authorities, a view that continues to this day in New Zealand.

Black African Nelson Mandela wearing a Springbok shirt presented the trophy to Captain Francois Pienaar, a white Afrikaner. The gesture was widely seen as a major step towards the reconciliation of white and black South Africans.

2007- reconciliation year for Springboks?
As for this year's event, opinions are divided. Some specialists the Springboks have 50 % chances of winning the tournament, while other, more skeptical; consider there is only 20% chance that they will lift the cup this time. This is one of the intimidating, aggressive and ruthless teams that have kept the same play style over the years, as rugby fans consider that the one thing that never changed about South African rugby is the fact that it never changes. South Africa meet the USA Eagles on September 30, in pool 'A' of Rugby World Cup 2007, at La Mosson Stadium, Montpellier. This is the first meeting between the sides in RWC. South Africa will be expected to win this encounter with ease, even playing their back up squad. We expect the Springboks to put on a festival of running rugby and go on to win by more than 40 points. This will be a chance to see some of the new names in the South African squad making a showing. Look out for: Bobby Skinstad making his international comeback, complete with the flying wingers Bryan Habana and Breyton Paulse.
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