Springboks ready for World Cup trophy tour of good hope
YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) — As black and white players hugged, danced and shared beer out of the Webb Ellis Cup, people across South Africa celebrated a Springboks world title for a third time.
Almost a quarter-century after the first, defined by the iconic scene of President Nelson Mandela wearing his green No. 6 jersey as he held the trophy with winning captain Francois Pienaar, Siya Kolisi wore the No. 6 as he lifted the trophy after a 32-12 win over England in Yokohama.
The first black player appointed captain in 128 years of Springboks' history, Kolisi says his squad is tangible evidence that harmony can overcome adversity.
Their aim was to give hope a country still gripped by inequality and poverty, high rates of violent crime, and where racial tensions still simmer more than two decades after the dismantling of apartheid.
"We love you, South Africa," Kolisi said in a post-game speech, after thanking the South African people on farms, in the taverns, in the townships and the cities, "and we can achieve anything if we work together as one."
Of course, there were those who predicted the wave of euphoria couldn't even be sustained until Monday, when every-day reality would hit home. And that's why there was always an extra week built into the Springboks' World Cup schedule.
Rassie Erasmus, as meticulous planner as there is in world rugby, penciled in this week for the Webb Ellis Cup to be taken back and paraded around South Africa, where the country's beloved anti-apartheid leader and first democratically elected president held it together with Pienaar in 1995.
"We decided ... we wouldn't call it sacrifice, but we needed to be 20 weeks together to have a chance as we were so far behind the other teams," Springboks head coach Erasmus said. "We saw it as a massive honor to try and win it."
"This is week 19," he said after Saturday night's victory, "and week 20 was always the trophy tour in South Africa."
The Springboks have won all three times they've reached the final — an unmatched ratio in seven trips to the World Cup. After losing their opening group game to two-time defending champion New Zealand, they're the first team to lose a game before capturing the title.
"We are proud. A lot of people said we would not make it," Erasmus said, "but South Africans never give up."
Unlike the playing squad of '95, which only contained one person of color, and the 2007 World Cup-winning squad that was also predominantly white, this Springboks squad has a more multiracial mix.
And from captain Kolisi to front-row forwards Tendai Mtawarira and Bongi Mbonambi, and wingers Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe— who scored South Africa's first tries in a Rugby World Cup final — to two-time champion Frans Steyn, the green jersey is what binds them together.
Mandela died in 2013. Cyril Ramaphosa, another president in a No. 6 jersey, was in Yokahama to back the Springboks this time.
Kolisi said a first team meeting with Erasmus when he took charge last year really set the tone for a playing group that was languishing in sixth spot in the world rankings and coming off some record defeats, making them more conscious of the role the Springboks could play for South Africa.
"It was just straight-forward and he told us exactly what we were doing as players — getting a lot of money, and doing things off the field, we didn't make rugby the main thing," Kolisi said. "He told us it has to change, the Springboks are more important than our personal goals."
Some people who had very little in life made sacrifices to "come and see us play," he said. "It changed our mindset. We cut off social media and we put heart and soul on the field. He is always honest with us."
While ushering in a new era of Springboks, Erasmus, an ex-international backrower, kept honing a game style that was straight out of South Africa's traditional coaching menu. A game plan driven by big, hard forwards, tactical kicking and heavy defense. There were critics in the course of the tournament, when the Springboks smothered and stifled attacking teams, or didn't score many tries themselves, but Erasmus stuck with them knowing that everyone loves a winner.
Flyhalf Handre Pollard scored the first 18 points from six penalty goals, keeping with the theme of finals in '95 and '07, until Mapimpi and Kolbe opened up the game with their tries in the last quarter.
Mapimpi, who comes from a rural area and didn't get any free ride through a rugby development pathway, dedicated his title to any kid inspired by his "long, long, long journey."
"I've seen a lot of things. Things I don't like," he said, "but we fight for our country. A lot of things happen in South Africa that affect us. We fight to push those things away."
Steyn, who was 20 when he won the title in '07, said his younger teammates have inspired him.
"I don't think it has hit them what they have done yet," he said. "But it will when they get home."
It means a lot to South Africa, he said, "as the country is in a worse position now than it was then."
Hooker Mbonambi is confident the win is the kind of morale-booster South Africa need.
"You could see what 1995 and 2007 did, what kind of impact it had on the country," he said. "We are so excited to bring the trophy home.
"We are representing the whole nation that needs hope, and we really pray they get hope from this."