World Cup win unites South Africa

23 October 2007

South Africa’s World Cup winning Springboks returned to a heroes’ welcome at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on Tuesday morning, as a massive crowd – some of whom arrived as early as 02:30 – gathered to welcome the team back from their successful campaign in France.

A triumph for the entire SA
As was the case with South Africa’s victory in the 1995 World Cup, it was clear that the World Cup win was a triumph for the entire country as people, regardless of colour, shared in the joy at the airport. The strains of Shosholoza rang through a crowd who rejoiced at the return of a new generation of heroes.

Springbok captain John Smit admitted he had expected a big welcome, but nothing like the sea of green which greeted the world champions.

Among the welcoming throng were 375 pupils from Jeppe Boys High, which coach Jake White attended as a boy and later served at as a teacher and coach of the first rugby team. White is quick to mention with fondness his connection to Jeppe, and the school responded by turning out in numbers to welcome its famous old boy back home.

Looking tired, but with grins plastered on their faces, the Boks interacted with their fans, chatting and signing autographs, and responding with a media and fan-friendly face not previously associated with the team. Indeed, the contrast with the 2003 World Cup could hardly be greater.

IRB Award winners
The Springboks’ return was held back by a day as the team remained in Paris on Sunday night for the annual IRB Awards Gala, but their presence was well rewarded as the team picked up three major awards.

Bryan Habana was named IRB Player of the Year, following in the footsteps of his teammate Schalk Burger, who won the award in 2004.

Jake White was named Coach of the Year, repeating his success of 2004, and the Springboks were named Team of the Year.

After their World Cup final victory, they also moved above the All Blacks to number one in the world rankings.

It was the cherry on the top for South African rugby in a year that also included an all-South African Super 14 final.

In fact, a joke making the rounds at the moment reads: “Congratulations to the Cheetahs and the Lions who made it to the Currie Cup Final. Congratulations to the Bulls and the Sharks who made it to the World Cup Final,” a reflection on the composition of the Springbok team, which is made up mostly of players from those two franchises.

Contrasting mood
The mood in South Africa contrasts sharply with that of SA’s fellow Sanzar countries, New Zealand and Australia, who entered the World Cup ranked number one and number two in the world.

In the land of the long white cloud, the recriminations continue after the All Blacks exited the World Cup at the quarterfinal stage, New Zealand’s earliest ever departure from rugby’s biggest tournament.

A story on the New Zealand Herald website criticises the dour, defensive nature of the final, and the journalist quotes All Black coach Graham Henry telling him a year before the tournament: “If winning a World Cup means we have to play defensive rugby, we have to kick the ball away and not play, then I’d rather not win it.”

One wonders how Henry feels about that viewpoint in retrospect. Clearly, from the views expressed on numerous message boards, All Black fans would happily have settled for a win regardless of the style employed in achieving it, and regardless of the score.

Down Under, Australian Rugby Union chief John O’Neill, who was critical of Eddie Jones when the former Wallabies’ coach signed on to work as a consultant for the Springboks, appears to have done an about-turn, all in the name of winning.

O’Neill now says he would consider Jake White as a replacement for John Connolly as coach of the Wallabies, if he is the best man for the job. Success, not style, it is clear, is the bottom line.

Jake White’s future
White’s future is a concern, with his Springbok contract set to expire at the end of this year. He says he has spoken to England’s 2003 World Cup winning coach Clive Woodward, as well as to Jones, about his next move. He isn’t making any decisions yet, however, saying he doesn’t want emotion to guide him.

Questions have already been raised about the future direction of South African rugby, with some politicians calling for greater quotas in the national team. White has always resisted this, opting to reward merit over quotas and, truth be told, it is this approach that has rewarded both the Springboks and the public.

Seeing the diverse crowd of supporters at the OR Tambo International Airport made it clear that South African sports fans value a world-class winning side above any other considerations.

President Thabo Mbeki, who celebrated with the Springboks in Paris after their 15-6 win over England in the final, told a radio programme on Monday evening that he has no say in the make-up of the team, but he could not see a good reason for breaking up the world champions.

Keep politics out of sport
At a press conference at the airport, players, coaches, sponsors, and politicians preached a message of keeping politics out of sport and taking full advantage of the positive groundswell of support rugby is enjoying in the wake of a winning World Cup campaign.

White praised the leadership of Bok captain John Smit, saying: “You can be the best coach in the world, but if you don’t have a good captain you cannot be a good coach.”

He also singled out the contributions of two of the side’s most experienced players, Percy Montgomery and Os du Randt. “They are going to be remembered in the history books as legends of the game,” he said.

Interestingly, Montgomery, the top scorer at the 2007 World Cup, and Du Randt, the cornerstone of the Springbok pack, weren’t playing for the national team when White took over as coach. Montgomery was plying his trade in Wales, and little missed by many Springbok supporters, while Du Randt had retired from the game.

Record holders
However, White recognised what the two players could offer the Springboks and persuaded both to return to the green and gold. Montgomery is now the most capped player in Springbok rugby history and its top points’ scorer, while Du Randt retires as the most capped forward of all time and a two-time World Cup winner.

Montgomery, like Smit and Victor Matfield, among others, is headed to France to continue his rugby career. The players all want to continue to play for South Africa, but their future depends on the direction SA Rugby chooses and, says Montgomery, his future depends on whether Jake White is retained as coach or not.

What is clear is that South African rugby is on an all-time high, and it would be a shame not to capitalise on the success of the World Cup victory.

Australia’s World Cup winning captain of 1991, Nick Farr-Jones, pointed out that there was a 300 percent increase in children taking up the game after the Wallabies won the title, and it is that kind of opportunity that needs to be seized upon in South Africa.

With World Player of the Year Bryan Habana the choice of most, there are now thousands of youngsters imagining themselves as one of the World Cup winning Boks as they enthusiastically play pick-up games of rugby.

Fans will have an opportunity to join in more celebrations later this week. On Friday, the winning squad will be taking part in an open-bus tour of Pretoria, Soweto, and Johannesburg.

On Saturday, the Webb Ellis Trophy will be displayed at the Currie Cup final in Bloemfontein and it’s a good bet that the cheer the players and the trophy will receive will be louder than the one that will go up if the home town Cheetahs lift the Currie Cup title.

On Sunday, the victory tour moves on to Durban at the Sun Coast Casino and Entertainment World.

Finally, Capetonians will get to see the Springboks on Monday when they undertake a tour through the city.