Mhambi has been redeployed.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Bad boks get some sympathy

Springbok rugby has not had good international press for decades. The stereo-typical image was of its big brutish and boorish players. Not creative or clever but gagging to bulldoze the opposition. Oh and probably racist.

Originally uploaded by bloudraak.

The recent Super 14 semi-finals and England tours revived the prejudice.

In an article titled No one has told the South Africans rugby and war are different Phil Gifford said:
Playing South African teams at home can still be the most physically, mentally and emotionally draining task in rugby. South Africans and New Zealanders share the same obsession with rugby, but the way that fixation is expressed is at its most extreme in South Africa, especially in areas where Afrikaaners dominate the game.
An English speaking white South African - Kevin Putt - who played for the Boks concurred:
"Here's the difference," said Putt. "When you play in Durban, for example, it's a great party atmosphere. They're there to enjoy themselves. The others (in Pretoria, home of the Bulls) are there to kill you."
Gifford was spot on when he remarked:
"You quickly discover, when you visit the country, that in South Africa rugby is a key expression of nationhood for a lot of the white population".
Stuart Barns wrote in the same vain when the English rugby team rode into South Africa's "Afrikaner towns".
Forget all this Absa Stadium corporate nonsense. To those with a rugby memory this ground will forever be Loftus Versfeld. It is the spiritual home of Afrikaans rugby, the very epicentre of their formidable culture of forward play. On the high veldt the English will receive little in the way of a welcome.

South Africa always love to beat the English and having recently lost seven straight internationals against their old foe there is a sense of relish here right now. Next Saturday could be something of a gladiatorial event, as much coliseum as rugby stadium and there is most definitely the scent of English blood.

Pretoria is known as Jacaranda City. The social attitudes of the locals may be harsh but as you drive into the city the trees are things of beauty. Beautiful or not, if England get this one wrong they will be travelling home, not from South Africa but from a rugby hell which will have left too many scars for England and too much buoyancy - from an English perspective - for South Africa.

Time to board that plane.
Listening to a post match video analysis on the Yahoo Xtra rugby site rugby Mhambi was amazed when commentators casually remarked on how amazing the feverish flag waving support of the the Bulls was in the super 14 semi final. It was great, and it reminded you of 1940's Germany they said.

But Mhambi was amazed himself. The intensity of the level of overt support, with supporters decked from head to toe in the colours of their team, was as much as that of the play on the field.

Express yourself

This overt expression of support was allot more than it had been a couple of years ago. What is going on? Perhaps the answer is similar to that of the explosion of Afrikaans music in recent years.

It's evidence of a identity under threat. An identity looking desperately for legitimate and successful symbols to cling to. Increasingly alienated from the South African state previously so dear to them, the Bulls offer a home.

And Afrikaner identity is so insecure. Mr Gifford of course was more accurate than he perhaps he realised. War and rugby go hand in hand for Afrikaners. The Springboks toured England for the first time in 1906. Many of the players had fought in the Boer war, and had learnt playing rugby as prisoners of war.

Because of this war Afrikanerdom had been devastated and utterly impoverished, the republics had been conquered its farms burned to ground en masse. Even before the war the Afrikaners were poor and many only semi-literate. Now they were nothing.

The success of that first 1906 tour to England (they drew 6 all) and the fact that they were an invincible team for almost 30 years soon after - did Afrikaners the world of good however.

But soon this devastating rugby prowess contributed to delusions of grandeur and hopped into bed with rising Afrikaner nationalism. Afrikaner nationalism in turn helped begat an accursed offspring called apartheid. Who in turn provided ample anti-bok fodder for prejudiced rugby hacks.

Sea change in opinion

But Mhambi also noticed a significant sea change in reporting recently. A sympathy, which although not misplaced has come perhaps too late.

News that there might be heavy racial quotas imposed on the Bok team suddenly became less palatable. The BBC, Stephen Jones in The Times, and the Australian's Bret Harris were concerned. Even in the normally rugbyless New York Times opinioned: "With renewed burning of tires on the streets, with protests about poor wages and inadequate facilities in education and public services, politicians still speak of "Africanizing" rugby."

It was probably due to the conflation of a few factors that the tectonic plates of received wisdom is shifting.

Firstly the Boks had once gain become real contenders. They had been largely ignored, or ridiculed whe staggering from one record lose to another. And Mhambi suspects few international rugby hacks thought the Boks could climb their way back to rugby domination. But now they are hot, it's World cup year and suddenly the side and South African rugby is being scrutinised. And as is the habit of particularly the English and New Zealand press, if you beat them, you must be a fantastically good side.

Secondly news of serial ANC corruption and its protection of Anglo Saxon bogeyman Robert Mugabe eroded some of the natural sympathies the ANC have enjoyed in the past. The third factor that was opperating in the Boks favour is boredom. New Zealand's All Blacks realise now how much they missed a strong Bok rugby opposition. Beating all comers with large margins creates a certain lack of dramatic tension.

Ironically the Boks have been picking players on a racial quota basis for years, but nothing had been said before now. The inclusion of Eddie Andrews and Hanyani Shimange had cost the Boks dear in the past few years. But currently it is hard to argue that any of the 'black' Boks don't deserve their place in the team.

But the thought that at least 10 'black' players will be enforced won the Springboks long overdue sympathy. If they win the World Cup in France 2007 the embattled laager boys might get even more help from their erstwhile detractors. It looks like they will need it.

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