The Springbok rugby team returned home to a muted welcome from their bruising Rugby World Cup final defeat to England on Saturday in Yokohama. Despite a gallant first-half display, they eventually were overrun by the overwhelming pre-match favourites, who scored three late unanswered tries to post a 42-12 victory. The Boks had exchanged penalties with England and went into half-time with a slender 9-6 lead. But a 45thminute try from Jonny May, facilitated by major errors by SA backs, gave Eddie Jones’s team the lead and a momentum they never surrendered. They thus claimed the William Webb Ellis Cup for second time, matching Australia and South Africa, who have two previous wins each. New Zealand holds the record alone for World Cup triumphs, with three to its name.
O.R. Tambo International Airport was only slightly busier than usual on Tuesday afternoon, as about a hundred die-hard supporters politely applauded the first cohort of players and staff entering the arrivals hall. There had been a three-hour delay of this first flight, and this had clearly taken its toll on both supporters and players. One fan, who did not want to be named, said, “I wanted to show the Boks that we appreciate what they did, getting to the final. It just wasn’t to be. We were never really in that final, from the moment Handre Pollard missed that first kick I had a bad feeling. It’s tough to come back to earth with a thud, and to remember that I’m still unemployed for the last six months. It would have been a big boost for me to see the boys winning. But just like the Boks, I just have to pick myself up and keep trying.”
Other fans have not been quite so forgiving. Another fan, who called herself only Lindi, was rather more scathing: “I’m here only because my fiancé travelled to Japan to watch the Boks, he’s spent money that was earmarked for our honeymoon. I refused to go. Now that they’ve lost my fiancé and I are going to have a very serious conversation about where to from here.” On social media, perhaps unsurprisingly, the criticism has outweighed the expressions of support despite the disappointment. For most, the cringeworthy two minutes when Makazole Mapimpi and then Willie le Roux crumbled under pressure, fumbling high kicks in quick succession, with the latter’s drop leading directly to England’s first try, has been the focus of attention. “We knew Willie couldn’t catch a cold, but why did we add to our problems by putting Mapimpi in the line, who also can’t catch!” said Twitter user, YeboGoggo3212.
Given South African history and current socio-political and economic tensions, it was just a matter of time before race would be directly mentioned as a contributing factor in the ultimately unsuccessful campaign. The controversy surrounding Eben Etzebeth’s participation, given accusations of racism levelled against him in the weeks before the team’s departure for Japan, has simply not gone away. The lock had a quieter game than in the semi-final, and was replaced after 50 minutes. Many placed the blame squarely on Etzebeth for the scrum’s poor performance, with Facebook user ShakaTheSulu saying, “I’m so glad England took this trophy away from us: there are so many racists in this divided country, one of them was eben supposed to drive the scrum, but he’s taken us backwards.” In contrast, other social media users were unhappy about perceived racialised political interference in team selection. “That’s affirmative action for you, a wing who can’t catch or take gaps, and a captain who can’t lead,” complained Twitter user Blakewhyte. There is little doubt that the controversy and recriminations will go on for some time on social media, if not on other forums in the real world.
South African captain Siya Kolisi may have summed up the national sentiment with his post-match comments. Expressing his thanks to supporters, he did not hide his disappointment as the first South African (black) captain to lose a Rugby World Cup final: “We’ve been carried all the way to this final by a united country. We’re just shattered that we lost, and that we let the country down in this difficult moment we find ourselves in. I just hope that we can maintain the unity, pull together and face our challenges with a brave face so we can hopefully get through.”