South Africa this weekend won the Rugby World Cup for a second time, seeing off bulldog England’s valiant effort. Since I am big rugby fan and South African, many of my friends expected to be overjoyed. Not so much. Here’s how I would frame my response to the outcome.
- My love of the game of rugby transcends any chauvinist national allegiances.
- If I had to pick one team to win the World Cup it would be either France or Ireland. France because I enjoy their brand of rugby — complex but open to sudden flashes of brilliance and Ireland because of their spirit. (Plus, I am an Irish citizen).
- If France or Ireland don’t win then I’d like for a major upset from any team outside of the big four.
- In the absence of any those conditions, I would probably want South Africa to win.
- Fortunately, one constant amongst all these variables is that my firm conviction that any team but England is an acceptable outcome.
My ambivalence isn’t just the consequence of my inability to be a fan of any team. I am just unlucky to be an ardent lover of the game who has grown up in a country with the most entangled and conflicted relationship with the sport. Rugby is of course an English sport, but is dominated by Afrikaners in South Africa. If there was any restriction imposed on South Africa during the apartheid years that deeply affected white South Africans, it was the ban on international rugby tours. For years, South Africans would have to comfort themselves with the thought that the Springboks were the best team in the world in theory.
When I was about 16 or so, I was introduced to the world of non-racial rugby through reports in the alternative weekly the Mail and Guardian. I was astounded: it was if the game had suddenly been purified for me. Here was a group of hard, talented players who were using rugby as tool of resistance and building a parallel dimension of excellence on their own terms. When I got to college, I somehow managed to find a bunch of guys who were playing in the non-racial league. Joining was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made. When the team dissolved, I joined the Eldorado Park Raiders.
The year I played for the Raiders was the first year leagues were united. Having the only white face (and body) was something of a liability against the more conservative elements that populate the game’s lower rungs. But even as I got my head kicked in, I felt I was doing the right thing. With the end of apartheid, rugby could become an instrument of transformation precisely because it was so fraught with symbolism. It hasn’t.
There’s definitely been progression away from the game being an expression of white, Afrikaner supremacy but nowhere enough for me to really feel honest about supporting the team without reservations.