When he finally got to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, Springbok captain Siya Kolisi mouthed all manner of thanks to the heavens as pandemonium broke out all around him.
As the third South African captain to lift the trophy in the space of 24 years – a feat that drew the Springboks level with their old enemy, New Zealand – there’s a temptation to be all “been there, done that” about it.
But as seismic as the 1995 victory was for the country’s then new democracy, and as reassuring of our status as a rugby powerhouse the 2007 win in France was, yesterday’s triumph in Japan was probably the most significant for South Africa.
Living in Nelson Mandela’s rainbow nation seems to be about weathering perpetual storms these days.
On the same day the Boks overcame their underdog status in the Rugby World Cup final – and in the same year in which 1995 World Cup heroes James Small and Chester Williams passed on – to beat the well-resourced might of England, ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service gave South Africa’s economy a negative rating. This in a country that is grappling with enduring racial division and an inexplicably high rate of violence against its women and children.
It doesn’t matter from which angle you look at it, this year has been rough for South Africa.
That it was Kolisi who lifted the Webb Ellis Cup – a Zwide township boy born to teenage parents and raised in abject poverty – gave hope to his countrymen on a day as miserable and gloomy as it was long (in Johannesburg, anyway).
In the build-up to the game, a social commentator rightly pointed out to Kolisi – in one of those open letters – that winning the World Cup would neither change the country nor alleviate its day to day struggles.
But when someone with Kolisi’s background finds himself at the heart of rugby in South Africa, you’d have to be devoid of a pulse not to take, ahem, heart from that.
Rugby, thanks to riding a fine line in exclusion, has played a cruel role in teasing South Africans about the unity Madiba dreamt of for 27 years in prison.
For different reasons – and the words ‘lip’ and ‘service’ come to mind – the 1995 and 2007 victories were rendered mirages by factions of the country going back to their respective corners a few weeks after they happened.
In a strange way, were true unity to happen in rugby, Madiba’s ideal of sport having the power to unite would have a realistic chance of cracking the tough nut that has been South Africa in recent years.
With Kolisi being the one to lift the trophy yesterday, wing Makazole Mapimpi the first Springbok to score a try in a World Cup final and wee Cheslin Kolbe probably turning his world player of the year nomination into a win by scoring a typically individual effort to seal the win, the hope is fervent that this victory will linger in the memory because of the everyday South Africanness of the people who made it possible.
The presence of all three players in the team screams out the possibilities that lie in wait for locals of all colours and, to borrow from rugby, shapes and sizes.
People talk about being the change that you seek, and few teams epitomise that more than this Springbok team.
To that end, one Johan “Rassie” Erasmus is to thank for seeing this country for what it can do, as opposed to what it can’t. South Africans don’t do looking for positives from the embers of abject failure, so the fact that Erasmus did when he took over from Allister Coetzee sets him apart as a visionary.
From installing Kolisi as captain, recruiting old heads Schalk Brits and Frans Steyn, putting trust in a diminutive Kolbe with the biggest heart, Erasmus has used his team to show us a blueprint of what it’s like when we decide to work together.
Those lessons were not heeded the last two times we won the World Cup. Will they this time?
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