South African victory a cocktail of hope and unity – with a twist of Irish
Felix Jones is a part of a Springboks coaching ticket fine-tuned in Munster
South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus and captain Siya Kolisi after victory over England in the World Cup final at the International Stadium, Yokohama, Japan.Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
By the end of the 2019 World Cup, all felt right in the rugby world. This feel-good tournament had the ultimate feel-good story; a head coach free of an ego had helped to complete a remarkable transformation for a rugby power and, most of all, a troubled country that needed it more than anyone else.
It had seemed like there were manifold rugby reasons for celebrating an English win, be it their brand of rugby as against the Boks’ hitherto straitjacket approach, the Irish head coach’s son as captain, the many Lions’ teammates of Irish players, the boon for the Six Nations and the achievement for our nearest neighbours, however strained that relationship may at times be the case.
However, in these Brexit times those reasons felt less valid by the end of South Africa’s ultimately resounding 32-12 win. It wasn’t even the thought of Boris Johnson milking a win for all its worth with a visit to Number 10. It wasn’t even the sight of English supporters among the vast White Army who wear those red jackets which are synonymous with UK colonialism, including of South Africa for the 19th century, and all the while singing a slave song.
No, it was the way the Springboks played, for they did come out to play, and ultimately, thankfully, decorated their third final with tries. Fittingly they were even rounded off by Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe.
It was also the sight of Francois Pienaar providing a link with that most iconic of World Cup days, the TV cameras in the Port Elizabeth township, and the sight of this most multi-racial of Springboks teams and band of travelling supporters bringing some unity (where once the Springbok jersey represented segregation), peace and hope back home in South Africa.
This has been reflected in the engaging way Rassie Erasmus and Siya Kolisi embraced supporters back in South Africa on social media (IRFU take note) and in their captain’s remarkable words to camera immediately after the game on pitchside.
“We have so many problems in our country,” he admitted, but also citing their different backgrounds, maintained “since I have been alive, I have never seen South Africa like this”.
Striving to emulate the effect of 1995, Kolisi said: “We really appreciate all the support. People in the taverns, people in the shebeens, people in farms, [for] homeless people there were screens there, and people in rural areas, thank you so much. We appreciate all the support, we love you South Africa, and we can achieve anything if we work together as one.”
Kolisi, from the township of Zwide, lost his mother when he was 15, but as well as adopting a half-brother and half-sister in addition to his own two kids from a mixed marriage, flew his father Fezakele over for the final – his first trip outside South Africa.
After their victory Kolisi revealed that his father was as keen to meet with Kolisi’s Springboks’ teammates as he was with his own son. The clear impression was that Kolisi was appreciative of what they had helped his son to achieve, which was somehow so typical of this Springboks collective.
Meanwhile, to their credit, Mario Itoje was the first of 10 English players who emerged into the mixed zone (IRFU again please take note) as well as Eddie Jones, who was in predictably spiky mood. Curiously, he had no explanation for why his team fell short and, even more bizarrely, was not of a mind, he said, to find out.
Settle a few scores
Confirming that he intends seeing out his remaining two years, but not whether he would like to stay on to the next World Cup, Jones was more of a mind to settle a few scores.
“I read all your articles, guys. There was going to be blood on the walls at Twickenham. All the blood was going to be up here.”
At that he turned around and theatrically sprayed his arms on the backdrop behind him, which was actually a window rather than a wall.
“”Remember what you wrote, all the blood was going to be there three weeks ago. You wrote it, guys, come on,” he said, clapping his hands three times, albeit it was one piece by one journalist. “Let’s get real about this.”
The Springboks were understandably slower into the mixed zone, having surely had equal reason to stay in their dressing-room to cherish the moments.
When they did emerge they had their winners’ gold medals dangling from around their necks on their chests, as well as pre-made T-shirts and caps proclaiming their refound status as world champions (which made you wonder what happened to the English versions of same).
Of course, this was a coaching ticket very much fine-tuned in Munster. As well as Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber, who seems very much like the heir apparent with his good mate having a hands-on approach as the South African Rugby Union’s director of rugby, and strength and conditioning coach Aled Waters, there’s Felix Jones.
In the midst of the post-match celebrations, exchanging warm embrace with Handre Pollard and others, was Jones, whom Erasmus co-opted onto the Boks’ coaching ticket before the tournament.
There he was, Ireland’s first Rugby World Cup winner with a medal around his neck. He has kept the lowest of low profiles, so it was left to others to sing his praises. Jones, according to Frans Steyn, had definitely added plenty.
“Definitely, especially on attack and some skills stuff. He’s really built that intensity in training, which we sometimes lacked before he came. He definitely had his part. His analysis is awesome, he’s busy the whole day on that computer.”
Steyn was the only survivor from the 2007 final in either squad, and said: “During your career there is so much stuff that happens to you. I lost my uncle two weeks ago and you get to think about that. I lost my brother in 2015, I lost my grandfather in 2011 just after the World Cup.
“When you get to this stage and you’re on the bus coming to the final, you think about all of that and the journey you walked to get here. It is special, I can’t say it’s more special than 2007, but it’s special.
“We still have a group on Whatsapp of the 2007 group. I sent them a message before the game to say I missed them and to thank them for the opportunities they gave me in 2007.”
Meanwhile, Francois Louw said of Erasmus: “I can’t think of anything more special, it was a very long road – a challenging road at times.
“We had two very dark years in Springbok rugby history and to come back the way we did, to form a united team the way we did. A team that fully represents South Africa to win the World Cup was super. It was one of those moments that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”
Of the perfectly choreographed and almost funny in-play rolling maul by the Boks which set up the penalty for an 18-12 lead, Louw said: “It was a trick play with a very exciting name called ‘die move’, translated as ‘the move’.”
But he also said of Jones: “Felix has been immense. He’s really brought an exciting dynamic to our game. He was someone who Rassie worked with at Munster, and knowing Rassie, having played under him for 15 years, he would only bring someone who could add to their side, someone he had a lot of faith in.
“Felix slotted in quite easily, the boys bought into his strategies, his passion, his gameplan and he’s definitely assisted with our success.”
Extraordinary stories, with even an Irish twist thrown into the mix.