Triumphant Springboks return home to rapturous celebrations

November 5, 2019

Siya Kolisi kept hoisting the Rugby World Cup trophy in the air and the thousands of South Africans who gathered to welcome home their triumphant Springboks team cheered louder each time.

The Springboks' first black captain gave his nation another golden rugby moment when he paraded the Webb Ellis Cup through a packed arrivals hall at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

The surprisingly dominant 32-12 win over England in Saturday's final in Japan delivered South Africa's third Rugby World Cup title. There's a mood at home that this one might be as meaningful as the first in 1995, won in front of Nelson Mandela and in the immediate aftermath of the dismantling of apartheid.

That gave hope but nearly a quarter of a century later South Africa is still weighed down by the legacy of the apartheid system of racial segregation, and by some new problems on top. South Africans in 2019 worry almost incessantly about poverty, unemployment, violent crime, corruption and a struggling economy in their young democracy.

But this was not a day for frowning in South Africa.

Not even when the people packed into the airport arrivals hall, and the balconies overhead, were made to wait nearly four hours to see Kolisi and the trophy because of airline delays.

As Kolisi emerged from the airplane and walked down a corridor with the cup, airport workers abandoned their stations and followed, singing, dancing and gyrating alongside him. In the arrivals hall, boys and girls were hoisted onto dad's shoulders for a better view, bed time on a school night irrelevant as the clock ticked past 8 p.m. A huge South African flag hung from a balcony and down one wall.

When Kolisi and the trophy finally came into view, the crowd — noticeably multiracial — erupted over and over.

"I think we won because we definitely wanted it a lot. I know they (England) also wanted it a lot but I must say the people outside here and the people inside here did help us a lot," Kolisi said after he and coach Rassie Erasmus were shepherded by a line of police officers into a side room at the airport to address the nation on live TV.

"It gave us another reason to fight even harder because we knew what was going on back home. I think coach reminded us we have a privilege of doing what we're doing and that can give a little bit of hope to the people. And it did drive us. ... We knew it was much more than our personal gains. It was for the country."

It made for quite a celebration for Erasmus' 47th birthday. But the mastermind of South Africa's triumph said his main wish was for the feel-good factor to last in the country when the World Cup euphoria was over.

"It's (the World Cup celebration) going to last for a week or two, or for a month," Erasmus said. "But what we want to see lasting is what we see here at the airport and here in this room. Black and white and different religions, all people of differences, working together and coming together and getting it right."

The Springboks' mystique is second to no team in South Africa. Hated by millions when the team was aligned to the racist apartheid regime, it is now loved by the same millions because of its diversity. Kolisi and other black players like him from impoverished backgrounds have made it representative of a nation that is 80 percent black, and has millions living in poverty.

Another inspiring story is Makazole Mapimpi, the wing who scored one of the Springboks' two tries in the final. He had a tough upbringing, went to an unfashionable school, and came through family tragedy to only make his debut for the Springboks last year at the age of 27.

Mapimpi was among a group of players who arrived on an earlier flight. As he emerged into view in the arrivals hall, he held his hands up and clasped them together as the crowd roared. Cheslin Kolbe, the other tryscorer in the final, was recording the scenes on his cellphone. Damian de Allende, with his gold medal draped round his neck, pumped his arms in the air and Duane Vermeulen, the player of the match in the final, dished out high fives to fans.

Mapimpi then surprised everyone by swearing — twice — on national TV as he attempted to explain how hard the Springboks trained at times to prepare for the World Cup, and also how he sat in the dressing room in disbelief at his own story after the victory in the final in Yokohama.

The first time Mapimpi uttered the expletive, South Africa's minister of sport, who sat next to him, gasped and put his hand to his mouth. The second time, the politician had a smirk on his face, accepting of the raw emotion that flowed out of the Springboks player.

This was not a day for frowning in South Africa.

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