“We had one goal, and we have achieved it.” – Siya Kolisi
South Africa beat England 32-12 in the 2019 Rugby World Cup, making it the nation’s third title win. Although the Springboks had been world champions twice before, the last win was back in 2007, and it’s fair to say they were the underdogs going into the final having lost to New Zealand in the pool stage. England’s players, on the other hand, were entering the final on a high having beaten reigning champions New Zealand 19-7 in the semi-finals, appearing to be in the form of their lives. So what happened?
The Mental Game
The England players were clearly in peak physical fitness and fully prepared for the rigours of the tournament, but were they mentally prepared for the pressures of the final match and South Africa adapting their tactics? Judging by the outcome on the day, Warren Gatland’s mischievous comment about England having played their final in the semi final was prophetic .
The First Win
The significance of the Springboks first World Cup win extended far beyond the rugby field. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela had been president for just one year and rugby was still considered a white man’s sport. Francois Pienaar was team captain in 1995 and he put it this way: “When the Springboks played at home, there was always a small area of the stadium where the blacks were penned in. It was always full. And they always supported the visiting team.”
On the day of the World Cup final held in South Africa, there were 63 000 supporters watching, and 62 000 of them were white. However, one of the black supporters was Nelson Mandela himself – and he was wearing a Springbok shirt and cap. His appearance in the colours of his national team (colours previously associated with his oppressors) created a sense of togetherness that rippled out across the troubled nation and into the homes of TV viewers across the globe. True togetherness had seemed an impossible dream, but as the green and gold clad Mandela handed the World Cup trophy to Pienaar, the new Springbok slogan of “One Team, One Country” began to feel like it could indeed be a reality.
“It’s well documented that Mr Mandela walked out into Ellis Park in front of a predominantly white crowd, very much an Afrikaner crowd, wearing a springbok on his heart and how they shouted, ‘Nelson, Nelson, Nelson!’ because what he’d promised he delivered. And when the final whistle blew this country changed for ever. It’s incomprehensible.” – Francois Pienaar
The Third Win
No team had gone on to win the World Cup after losing a game earlier in the tournament. After their defeat against the All Blacks, Springbok coach Rassie Eramus said, “That first defeat was a great lesson for us. The whole week was terrible, the entire build-up, and that taught us a lot about how we should handle the quarterfinals, semi-finals and final. We started talking about pressure. In South Africa pressure is not having a job. Pressure is one of your close relatives murdered… South Africa has a lot of problems and we started talking about how rugby shouldn’t be something that puts pressure on you. It should be something that creates hope. But you can’t create hope just by talking about it, hope is not something you say in a beautiful tweet.”
And creating hope is something Springbok captain Siya Kolisi is well-qualified to do. Born into extreme poverty, he has inspired hope in many young black South Africans. In interviews, he has said that when he was growing up in an impoverished township, he never dreamed he’d one day captain the national team, he simply dreamed of being able to find his next meal. Rugby gave him hope.
“When I was young, I was just focused on going to training each day, preparing myself for the opportunity just in case it ever came.” – Siya Kolisi
Opportunity did come for Siya Kolisi, and he was prepared to take it, becoming the first black player to captain the Springboks. He says, “The kids must keep dreaming and keep believing. Anything can be overcome.” His dream echoes the dream of Nelson Mandela back in 1995 when he inspired an entire nation and beyond by wearing the colours of his national team and believing in the words “One Team, One Country,” and his attitude of anything can be overcome undoubtedly filtered down through the whole team on the day that it really mattered. Couple this with coach Eramus’s words on creating hope and it’s possible to believe that the Springboks had already won the World Cup before they stepped out onto the pitch…
“Hope is when you play well. Hope is when people watch the game on a Saturday, and they have a BBQ, and they feel good about themselves, and no matter your political differences, or your belief differences, for those 80 minutes, you all agree. It is not our responsibility as players to create that hope, it is our privilege.”
As the president, Nelson Mandela delivered what he promised, inspiring a nation, and as team captain and coach, Siya Kolisi and Rassie Eramus delivered what they promised, inspiring a national team and a united nation of supporters.
Don MacNaughton is a High-Performance Coach, Mentor and Key Note Speaker.
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