A Brief History Since Isolation
(Written by Lucas in 2003 - unpublished)
More than a decade has passed since South Africa’s readmission to international rugby. In 1992, on a sunny winter’s day the Springboks came close to beating the old nemesis, the All Blacks of New Zealand. A great deal of change occurred during the most turbulent period in the history of the game, the most profound being professionalism. In essence a revolution took place in the way the game is perceived, played and administered.
Rugby is regarded as one of the ultimate team challenges yet individual brilliance can sway a match in one’s favour. Down the years a plethora of stars graced the game with phenomenal skill and the crowds accorded hero worship to the greatest players of the day. Names like Colin Meads, Willie John McBride, Frik Du Preez, Gareth Edwards and many more became household names through their exploits on and sometimes off the field. An indication of the popularity of Frik Du Preez, South Africa’s player of the 20th Century, in his hey day was the delivery of fan mail to his home simply addressed as, ‘Oom Frik, Blou Bulle, Pretoria’. They played for the love of the game and international camaraderie.
Today, players are expensive commodities with sponsorship deals and salaries worth millions. The first superstar of the post isolation period was an aging blonde genius and one of Dr Danie Craven’s four greatest players of all time, Naas Botha. A teenage prodigy in the seventies, a match winning general in the eighties the current day television pundit was the first “professional” in South African rugby. He played rugby all year round and sometimes only a day elapsed between matches in South Africa and jetting to Italy for a club fixture. At the time other superstars in world rugby like David Campese and John Kirwan followed similar schedules and with their fame and skills earned a great deal of money.
The Springboks struggled to come to terms with the massive changes in the way the world game was played and a few unsuccessful years in 1993 and 1994 only emphasized the damage of the isolation years. There were a lot of talented players but the provincial inanities, a recurring theme in Springbok rugby, precluded success on the field. Few players in this time matched the fame and notoriety of James Small, the winger epitomized commitment to the cause and he was simply a legend in his own time. On and off field excursions made him the pin up of South African rugby and for the first time a player truly exploited his commercial value.
Fast-forward to 1995, South Africa’s victory over the All Blacks in a nail-biting finale at Ellis Park changed the face of the game forever. The Springboks were magnificently prepared for the competition by coach Kitch Christie and great teamwork ultimately won them the William Webb Ellis trophy. A few players emerged from the dust of the last “amateur” event to dominate the world stage. Jonah Lomu became the biggest name and most recognized player in the world, for South Africa, Francois Pienaar extended his role of Springbok captain to that of rugby statesman. The big, blonde flanker captained the Springboks in each and every test he played in. A product of an Afrikaans working class family his rise to prominence in the world game was nothing short of spectacular. He was also instrumental in negotiating a deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation that turned rugby into a fully-fledged professional game.
The News Corporation millions meant that players were now “official” employees of their various unions. The South African World Cup squad benefited enormously from the SANZAR deal and though it culminated in tension with other players it helped everyone in the country to earn a decent living from the game.
The new era of professional rugby did not do the Springboks any favours and the euphoria of the previous year evaporated quickly as the core of the world cup squad disintegrated. The 1996-year was one of the worst in a long Springbok history. The All Blacks managed to win their first series victory on South African soil and things did not go much better off the field. Pienaar was dropped as captain and replaced by Gary Teichman, an unassuming Natalian and coach Andre Markgraaff, unwittingly, opened a brand new avenue for South African rugby players in the professional era, exodus to Britain.
Pienaar was not the first Springbok to play his rugby in Britain, quite a few established stars played in Italy, France and England but his high profile attracted huge attention and the rumoured money involved raised more than a few eyebrows. South African rugby’s deal with the paymasters was skillfully negotiated in US dollars by controversial president, Louis Luyt. The failing rand therefore benefited the money coffers of SARFU, players by no means financial gurus but with cunning agents recognized the enormous potential of plying your trade in the UK. Pienaar, again pioneered the way for other players to benefit from the instability of South African rugby at the time.
More turmoil was to follow, coaches were chopped and changed and in 1997 after a loss against the touring British Lions and a second dismal Tri-Nations, South African rugby was in crisis. There were few stars; younger players found it difficult to establish themselves in an unsettled team, James Small and Joost van der Westhuizen cornered the commercial market with their good looks and marketability. The appointment of Nick Mallett at a tough time in South African rugby was the catalyst to a change in fortune. A record 17 test victories in a row established Mallett as the second most successful coach in history. The Springboks won the 1998 Tri-Nations in emphatic style, suddenly the young players were veterans and new stars had emerged, Johan (Rassie) Erasmus, Percy Montgommery, Andre Snyman were added to the established Chester Williams, Mark Andrews and Os Du Randts. And there was Bob Skinstad.
The 1999 World Cup in Britain and France was an anti climax for a country use to seeing their team win. Mallett ousted his captain, Teichman in favour of one of the most talented players of 1998, Bob Skinstad. In his early twenties Skinstad redefined the role of an impact player and his popularity off the field was huge. “Bobby-mania” was everywhere; his marketability was phenomenal and with brilliant play in the Super 12 cemented his credentials as THE player in South Africa. A car accident ruined his build up to the world cup and although selected was not at his previous imperious best. A phenomenal Australian side, professionally prepared by Rod MacQueen swiped all opposition away including the Springboks in extra time to beat France in a dour final.
A lot of criticism was leveled at Mallett for his sacking of Teichman and selection of an unfit Skinstad and his popularity waned dramatically to be finally replaced at the end of the 2000 Tri-Nations by Harry Viljoen after criticizing his employer for the high test ticket prices. Viljoen, a highly successful businessman was seen as the savior of Springbok rugby, innovative ideas and consulting talk about vision, processes and the introduction of business units appealed to a lot of people who were now coming to terms with rugby as a business in the professional era.
Unfortunately, the hard work on the structures did little to improve results on the field and 2001 was yet another dismal year for Springbok rugby. A shared series against a young French team, only one victory in the Tri Nations and the replacement of captain Andre Vos with Bob Skinstad placed tremendous pressure on Viljoen. The end of year tour was labeled disastrous and in the final match of a long season the Springboks struggled against the Eagles of United States. Viljoen became the first Springbok coach to throw in the towel on own accord and after an extensive interviewing process, Rudolf Straeuli was appointed coach for 2002.
Meanwhile SARFU had split up with the creation of SA Rugby (Pty) Ltd to deal with all issues around the professional game. The help of a consulting firm, Accenture was acquired to investigate the running of the game and the resulting report has instigated the arduous task of centralizing the Springbok brand, rationalization of competition structures and employment contracts. In other words doing what all other business does to remain competitive and profitable. Even supporting the Springboks has taken on a new dimension with an organisation like the Springbok Supporters Club providing professional value added service to all members.
The 2002 season saw the emergence of a very talented and exciting young Springbok team where gifted new players emerged. Names like Brent Russell, Andre Pretorius, Bolla Conradie, Marius Joubert, Lawrence Sephaka and Joe van Niekerk produced some excellent performances during the Tri-Nations even though winning only one match. The season was of course marred by the Piet van Zyl incident in Durban. Despite a below par record in the competition, supporters were steeped in optimism and record crowds attended the Currie Cup series and the popular thought was that South African rugby had turned the corner. The end of year tour to Europe was in short disastrous and the Springboks suffered record defeats in all three their matches. An alarming tag also emerged; South African teams lacked restraint and are more intent on playing the man rather than the ball.
Again there is a crossroad in this much-maligned sport and the year 2003, a World Cup year will determine the success of the previous four. Another revolution is needed to propel the professional players from being labeled and paid as such to disciplined individuals who obey and produce according to a certain code of work ethic and performance. Without that kind of commitment South African rugby will remain in dire straits far longer than necessary.