There’s no ‘I’ in team ... How Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber redefined Springboks

The Springboks have been celebrating their Rugby World Cup title with a tour around the country. Picture: Leon Lestrade / Independent Newspapers

The Springboks have been celebrating their Rugby World Cup title with a tour around the country. Picture: Leon Lestrade / Independent Newspapers

Published Nov 4, 2023


One of the clips doing the rounds from the Springboks’ changeroom at the Stade de France is Eben Etzebeth addressing the squad, gold medal around his neck after the back-to-back Rugby World Cup triumphs.

He says with a catch in his voice: “No other team has done it the hard way like we have. We are the greatest rugby team in the history of the sport.”

The next night, at the World Rugby Awards in Paris, Etzebeth was the only South African named in the tournament’s Dream Team. It featured five Irishmen, five Frenchmen, four New Zealanders and a solitary Springbok.

South Africans understandably were shocked, but I think it was a backhanded compliment.

If you look at that Dream Team, each one of those players deserves his place. I can’t find a convincing argument for any Bok to replace those guys.

But how then did the Springboks win the World Cup if they didn’t necessarily have the best players? The answer is that they had the best TEAM. The Boks add up to much more than the sum of their parts.

The super-glue that holds the 23 players together during a match is their spirit, belief, courage and resilience.

The Boks are unquestionably the best team in the world, and the question now is, are they the greatest team the world has seen?

That is almost impossible to answer, but I venture that they are the best team in World Cup history. That narrows it down to the teams that have contested the World Cup since it kicked off in 1987.

And the only team to rival the current Boks after their back-to-back triumphs is the team that did it in 2011 and 2015 – Richie McCaw’s All Blacks.

That team crushed Australia in the final, but they had a relative cruise through that tournament.

In 2019, the Boks lost to the All Blacks in a pool match before having a fairly easy run to the final.

But this was hardly the case this year. Apart from Romania in a Pool B game, the Boks played seven brutal games. In their pool, they had the No 1 and No 5-ranked teams in the world in Ireland and Scotland.

Tonga, while not overly skilled, were physically tough – several Boks said it was their toughest game from a sore body point of view

The Boks lost narrowly to the best Ireland team of all time.

In the quarter-finals, the Boks encountered another best-ever team, France.

Little wonder they were out on their feet when a week later they played a semi-final against an England team that were able to play their best game in four years, because they had had an easy run.

But it is not just the bloody-mindedness that the Boks showed in adversity. They were also the best-coached team in France.

How funny it is now that for so long, the Springboks were viewed by some critics as the dumbest team in world rugby.

They were laughed at for their dinosaur approach to the game, and rightly so.

Compare this to the innovation they have shown in recent years.

What other team would have called up a flyhalf to replace a hooker? No other side would have taken the chance of having to play a final with Deon Fourie at hooker for most of the game.

No other team had the guts to make huge calls, like going for a 7-1 split on the bench.

Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber have redefined what it means to be a replacement. If you are on the bench, you are not second-best – you are a highly-valued component of a bigger picture.

What other coaching staff would have the courage to pull off a flyhalf after just 30 minutes? And Manie Libbok did not blink in the week afterwards.

The squad is so tight that egos do not exist among the Boks. That is why they can dig deep to win tough matches.

To reiterate, the Boks are way bigger than the sum of their parts because of the work they put in off the field.

Finally, they are superbly led by a wonderful human being in Siya Kolisi. If only he could run for office in the next elections …

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