Rugby is not a gentle game. But when the South African team walked onto Newlands rugby ground in Cape Town to face the British and Irish Lions on Sept. 12, 1903, expectations were of an especially violent match. It was just over a year since the Boers, or Afrikaners, and the British had been at war, a brutal conflict in which Britain's Lord Kitchener built the world's first modern concentration camps and the Afrikaners found one of the defining moments of their history. On that September day, after two matches drawn in a three-match series, the South Africans had one thing on their minds: bloody revenge.
"Those early matches were incredibly tough," says John Nauright, professor of sport management at George Mason University in Washington, D.C., and author of several books on South African rugby. "The rugby pitch was the one place where they could fight the war all over again." Records of the match do not list how many British noses were broken or ankles stamped on, only that after drawing 10-10 and 0-0 in the earlier matches, the imperial masters unexpectedly went down 8-0 (two tries and one conversion) in the Newlands mud. It was the first time the British had lost a series in South Africa. The Springboks, as the South African team would soon be known, went on to thrash most of their opponents in a tour of Britain, Ireland and France in 1906, and win all their series home or away until 1956.
Sports fans like to talk about their pastimes as a passion, a religion, even a matter of life or death. For Afrikaners, to use an old sports cliché, rugby is far more important. So integral did the sport become to white South African, and specifically Afrikaner, identity over the last century that "it's possible to trace the whole history of South Africa and apartheid through rugby," says Floris Van Der Merwe, a sports historian at Stellenbosch University, the spiritual home of the game in South Africa.
The sport first arrived with the British in Cape Town around 1875. Clubs quickly began to form, including one at Stellenbosch, now the biggest and second oldest rugby club in the world. Research by Van Der Merwe shows it was in Kitchener's camps, however, that rugby really took off among Afrikaners. In 1902, the Boers and the British even agreed to a temporary cease-fire to allow a game between the two forces.
Why did Afrikaners embrace the game of their enemy with such enthusiasm? "The idea was simply to beat the English at their own game," says Albert Grundlingh, history professor at Stellenbosch. "The viciousness and intimidation in those matches was unbelievable." That aggression still exists today in games between Stellenbosch, which is predominantly Afrikaner, and the University of Cape Town, where students are more likely to trace their origins to England. A wartime need for vengeance sowed the seeds of what was to become an obsession in peace. With their victory over the English, the Springboks effectively appropriated rugby as an Afrikaner game.
The game's appeal was twofold. Physically, as Grundlingh says: "It's a rugged, aggressive game which appeals to men in a state of hormonal pugnacity." And mentally, it drew in those whose frame of mind was generally "uncompromising." Afrikaners, descendants of tall, stocky Dutch farmers who had fought both Africans and the British as well as heat and drought to carve out new lives in Africa, found the game to their liking on both counts. By World War I, South Africa and New Zealand, another remote British colony, were the two towering powers of world rugby. Evidence that the same overt masculinity runs through South African rugby today can be found in Stellenbosch. In the center of town hangs a sign for a country outfitter that proclaims: MR. FARMER WORKWEAR TOUGH ENOUGH TO TAKE IT ROUGH.
A Race for Supremacy
By World war II, South African rugby had developed more sinister associations. As well as being the home of South African rugby, Stellenbosch formed the intellectual crucible of apartheid. From the 1930s, Afrikaner nationalism, originally a righteous reaction to defeat by the British, transformed itself into something altogether less sympathetic. Initially, the enemy was the English and the English language. But as a tide of independence swept European colonies around the world, the enemy became black Africans. The ruling National Party adopted rugby as its own, dominating its governing bodies; in Stellenbosch, apartheid's academics concluded that proof for their theories about racial supremacy was to be found on the rugby pitches, where Afrikaners daily demonstrated their prowess. Meanwhile, the instruments of apartheid the police and the army also formed teams. In time, these became important club sides, giving South African rugby an enduring militaristic flavor. As recently as 2003, the sport was mired in controversy when it emerged that World Cup preparations had included a boot camp called Kamp Staaldraad which translates as "Camp Barbed Wire" where players were made to crawl naked across gravel and to climb naked into a foxhole and sing the national anthem while iced water was poured on them and recordings of God Save the Queen and the All Blacks' haka played at full volume.
Internationals became a particular proving point for the apartheid regime. "As South Africa became more isolated internationally, rugby became a redoubt, a place where they could still prevail," says Grundlingh. Van Der Merwe says the players' motivations were often more blunt. "You could apply your hatred for other races on the rugby field," he says. Beating the Springboks with racially mixed teams became equally important for foreign sides with nonwhite populations. New Zealand canceled a 1967 tour of South Africa when Pretoria refused to allow Maori players into the country. And as worldwide opposition to apartheid grew, the Springboks often bore the brunt of that popular anger on the field. On a 1974 British Lions tour of South Africa the Lions adopted the "99" call at which each Lions player would attack the nearest Springbok, gambling that the referee would be unlikely to send off the entire team.
But if rugby was a pillar of apartheid, it was also a key to its undoing. Legendary Springbok coach Danie Craven, whose obsession with the sport left little room for politics, chipped away at apartheid by organizing multiracial games at Stellenbosch in the 1950s, in defiance of university authorities, and including South Africa's first nonwhite player, Errol Tobias, in a match against Ireland in 1981. Nauright says a pivotal moment came when an All Blacks tour went ahead in 1971 after South Africa agreed to admit Maori players as "honorary whites." "Hard-line Afrikaners said that letting in the Maoris would be the start of a slippery slope," says Nauright, "and they were absolutely right. When the team did eventually come, black South Africans came out in droves to support the Maoris."
When apartheid crumbled in the early 1990s and the African National Congress was elected in 1994, it initially seemed that rugby might follow the arc of South Africa's transition and become a multicolored pillar of what Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the "Rainbow Nation." With the ban on playing there lifted, South Africa hosted, and won, the 1995 World Cup. President Nelson Mandela had personally intervened to allow the team to continue to use the Springbok emblem viewed by many as a symbol of apartheid and he famously donned a Springbok jersey to present the trophy to white Afrikaner captain Francois Pienaar at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. (Clint Eastwood has announced he will direct a film about the tournament, with Matt Damon as Pienaar and Morgan Freeman as Mandela.) The symbolism of the moment captured the hope that black and white South Africans would finally be reconciled.
A Stubborn Legacy
Like the country, South African rugby has failed to live up to that heady promise. South Africa remains largely segregated by race. The Springboks field a handful of black and colored players, but compared to soccer or even cricket, the sport remains a predominantly white and particularly Afrikaner pursuit. Chester Williams, colored member of the 1995 team, published a biography in 2002 in which he claimed to have been the subject of racial abuse by teammates. In an interview with TIME, the man who coached the Springboks until late last year, Jake White, said that 13 years after the end of apartheid, the scarcity of black players combined with the politics of change meant he could never drop a nonwhite.
Will South African rugby ever be just a game? Grundlingh is skeptical. For Afrikaners, rugby has become "even more important as their power and influence has declined" in other areas, he says. For the reformers, the "transformation" of rugby "is just a code word for its Africanization." Van Der Merwe says that the Springboks without political controversy is "like a clean Olympics": desirable, but unattainable.
And yet. In October 2007, the Springboks beat the English once again, in the final of the World Cup in Paris. As another set of mostly white South African players embraced another black South African President, at home South Africans of every hue wrapped themselves in the country's multicolored flag and danced together in the streets. "A South African rugby World Cup victory is the only time you truly see the Rainbow Nation," says Van Der Merwe. And what would South Africa be without rugby? "Then we'd really be lost."
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