Ciaran Kearney: The Springboks’ mission was driven by deeper meaning

The last time the All Blacks and Springboks competed in the Rugby World Cup Final was 1995, a year after the end of apartheid in South Africa. 

Bongi Mbonambi was talking to me as we stood next to King’s Park, with the Indian Ocean beckoning just behind us. Bongi grew up 400 kilometers away from where we were at his current club, the Durban Sharks, in the Bohlokong township of Bethlehem. The township lacked a grass field. Rugby was offered at a Model C school, which he and one other person were able to attend. Rugby helped Bongi escape the darkest aspects of life and stoked his love and passion for the sport.

On the morning Bongi and I caught up, the Springbok hooker and South Africa’s vice-captain had his right leg in a full-length brace. Unfortunately, it was the same leg which he injured 90 seconds into last week’s The All Black Shannon Frizzell injured him during a risky clear-out during the Rugby World Cup final. Frizzell was given a yellow card, and Bongi was substituted out. He did not participate in the game any more, but he later made an appearance on the sidelines cheering on his teammates as they played. This South African rugby team has such a strong psychological bond that Bongi’s presence on the field was symbolic. South Africa’s “squad depth” was evident to all during the campaign. The depth of significance in the mission of this Springbok team was less evident to outsiders.

The last time the All Blacks and Springboks competed in the Rugby World Cup Final was 1995, a year after the end of apartheid in South Africa. While apartheid endured, an international sporting boycott enhanced support for democratic change. Back then, the Springboks were synonymous with a political regime which legalised white supremacy. Political transformation provided an opportunity to change this. As President of a new government of National Unity, Nelson Mandela lobbied for the 1995 Rugby World Cup to be staged in South Africa. The relationship Mandela forged with Springboks captain Francois Pienaar was brilliantly dramatised in the movie ‘Invictus’. Before the final, President Mandela walked into the Springboks changing room wearing the team jersey with Pienaar’s number 6 on the back. His gesture reinforced the vision of a shared mission.

That moment still has special resonance for South Africa. To see Mandela present the Webb Ellis Cup to Pienaar projected a much-needed vision of the post-apartheid rainbow nation. But the team itself didn’t reflect this vision. The only person of colour was Chester Williams. Bongi Mbonambi and the Springboks captain Siya Kolisi were both four years old at the time. As Kolisi has openly admitted, he had no dream of playing for his country, much less being the first person of colour to captain the Springboks to a historic fourth title and back-to-back championships.

Kolisi’s personal journey has embodied the life struggles of many people in post-apartheid South Africa. His mother was a 16-year-old girl who gave him over to be raised by his father’s mother. By the age of eight, he was smoking with his friends. Soccer was the popular sport in his Zwide township, but Kolisi preferred the skills of rugby. Like Bongi, school became his salvation and his springboard in rugby. Kolisi was the first recipient of a Vincent Mai bursary to attend Grey’s High in Port Elisabeth. He still describes Vincent Mai as the person who changed the course of his life.

In turn, Kolisi himself has created a philanthropic foundation, in part to campaign against gender-based violence in South Africa. Again, his purpose is deeply driven by the goal of collective impact. He saw his own mother have teeth beaten out of her mouth by a man. Success in sport helps Kolisi garner support for his foundation. Winning is his way to prosper his personal values and link them to a wider social good.

These kinds of things are far too frequently disregarded when analyzing high-performance teams. Performance goals are lifted, if not completely abstracted, from a distinct statement of individual and group purpose. The psychology of meaning is more complex than cognitive abilities. The absence of comprehension regarding group and team dynamics, including purpose, values, meaning, and belonging, cannot be made up for with any number of changing room posters, mysterious symbols, team contracts, or “secret” performance calls. These all have their roots in the study of human behavior. Psychology has made an effort to explain how people, place, context, and time interact, starting with the work of Kurt Lewin and continuing with Uri Bronfenbrenner.

Sport psychology in high performance was recently discussed at an event held at St Mary’s University College in Belfast. More than 300 attendees demonstrated the growing interest in the topic in Ireland as they listened to a panel of experts. Dr. Kate Kirby, one of the panelists, talked about her work supporting Irish athlete Ciara Mageean from Portaferry, County Down, since 2017. She stated that positive change takes time. Family visits to Ireland’s camp during this year’s Rugby World Cup, according to former Ulster and Irish rugby player Chris Henry, were viewed as a distraction during the 2015 campaign. He pointed out that the situation has changed and that Ireland’s current squad undoubtedly profited from these familial ties.

Although context is complicated, high performers occasionally misunderstand or disregard contextual intelligence. Understanding the context and cultural differences between groups and individuals from the “southern hemisphere” and those from the “global north” requires work.

I have visited South Africa multiple times since 1996, exploring the entire nation. Kolisi refers to the residents of the townships who get up at 4 a.m. to catch buses to work, sometimes doing two or three jobs, when he claims that hard work is ingrained in the DNA of the Springboks. He claims those folks are watching the Springboks.

rival. If their team doesn’t put in a lot of effort, they don’t get it. This season, the team has outperformed its opponents in tackles and turnovers, which embodies their team identity on the field.

For Siya Kolisi’s team, the World Cup victory holds great significance as it represents hope and optimism for 60 million South Africans. After a generation, the triumph of the Springboks continues to represent the belief that, in Nelson Mandela’s words, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

*The writer is a senior lecturer in human development studies and a psychologist.

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