Rugby is one of the ‘Big 3’ in South African sports, aside from soccer and cricket. Rugby matches get the entire nation on its feet and many South Africans see rugby as a source of pride or disappointment. In the past, the game was associated with politics and the old apartheid system. Today, rugby is the game of all South Africans, with the country performing extremely well on the world stage. In South Africa, both rugby union and rugby league are played. Rugby union is a full-contact sport with 15-player teams, whereas rugby league is a more fast-paced version of the sport played with 13 players in a team.
History of Rugby in SA and Famous Rugby Players
- The first official rugby match in South Africa took place at Green Point in Cape Town in August 1862. It was played between the Army and the Civil service consisting of the British and white South Africans. Through the following period, there were black South Africans who played rugby as well, formed rugby's official governing bodies and participated in the national team, boasting the Springbok flag. Unfortunately, the sport became associated with politics and nationalism. During the apartheid period, non-white players were excluded from rugby teams.
- The national rugby team was readmitted to international rugby in 1992, around the time when apartheid was upon being abolished. In the same year the South African Rugby Football Union was formed, which changed its name in South African Rugby Union in 2005.
- South Africa was absent from the first two Rugby World Cups in 1987 and 1991. The team has since won the championship twice, in 1995 as the host and in 2007 in Paris, defeating England.
- Most notable SA rugby players include Mark Andrews (most-capped player with 77 tests), Bryan Habana (the most decorated rugby player in South African history), Victor Matfield (won the man of the match award during the 2007 World Cup final against England), John Smit, Frik du Preez and Danie Gerber, among others.
- Rugby World Cup on home soil in 1995: The newly democratic South Africa hosted and debuted in the Rugby World Cup tournament in 1995. Winning against New Zealand is now remembered as one of the greatest moments in South Africa's sporting history not only for the win itself but also for the fact that Nelson Mandela appeared wearing a Springboks cap and jersey and presented team captain Francois Pienaar with the Ellis Cup. A white Afrikaner and his black president embraced and became an international symbol of racial reconciliation.
- The national South African rugby team competes in international tournaments such as the Africa Cup and Tri Nations (The Rugby Championship), apart from the Rugby World Cup.
Fun Rugby Facts
The national rugby team of South Africa is nicknamed Springboks. The name was first used during the team’s first tour of the British Isles and France. The springbok is a slender, long-legged antelope found in South Africa. Paul Roos, the captain of the first South African team picked the animal to be the team’s symbol and name to prevent the European media in 1906 from inventing their own nickname, and also because he believed it reflected the spirit of the team - springboks are very good at leaping in the air with all four legs off the ground.