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Mighty Boks: South African rugby & history with Wales

By Sean Davies

Playing colours: Green and white
Anthem: South Africa anthem
Nick name: The Springboks

To say that rugby is a religion in white South Africa is to understate the point.

Francois Pienaar celebrates winning the World Cup in 1995

There can be few countries where a sport has taken on more national and cultural significance.

Their success on the playing pitch has matched the passion for the sport. Throughout the 20th century, the Springboks and New Zealand wrestled for dominance in the world game in a rivalry of epic proportions.

The game's beginnings can be attributed to Britain's control over South Africa from 1806, bringing imperial values and soon establishing British sports on the Cape.

The acknowledged founder of rugby in South Africa is Canon George Oglivie, headmaster of Diocesan College, Cape Town, 1861-85. He helped to develop the emerging game with input from new colonists from Britain.

In 1883 the game was strong enough in the Western Cape for the Western Province Rugby Football Union to be formed.

British army regiments played a key role in spreading the game throughout the country, and six years later the South African Rugby Football Union was founded.

Early tours

Rugby was given a huge boost by the early British and Irish tours which created great interest in the South African press.

Corne Krige gets to grips with Gareth Thomas
Springbok forward play is uncompromising

The home nations were easily on top in 1891 and 1896, but in the latter series South Africa won the final Test.

It was the first time they had worn the green Old Diocesan shirts, which would become the team's national colours.

In 1903 South Africa claimed the series win. They would not lose another Test series - home or away - until 1956.

The true strength of South African rugby dawned on the world during the 1906 tour to Britain, a trip that helped heal wounds after the Boer War and instil a sense of national pride in the South Africans.

This tour also saw the adoption of the name Springboks, taken from the symbol of their jersey.

It was coined by captain Paul Roos to stop the British press inventing their own name for the tourists, as the media were keen for a catchy line after the interest generated by the 1905 All Blacks.

Wales, in the middle of their first golden era, were expected to win the South Africa Test easily, especially after the tourists were seen to struggle in the scrums in their early games.

The Boks were quick learners, though, and after coming to terms with some of the Welsh tricks they destroyed the ageing home pack at St Helen's.

Brilliant full-back Arthur Marsberg was the Springbok hero and he was chaired from the pitch.

The second Springbok tourists of 1912-13 brought an awesome pack who led them to a grand slam against the home sides.

Joost van der Westhuizen
Wales have only beaten South Africa once

Their win over an experimental Welsh team was expected, but the men in red did well to hold the Boks to 3-0 at the close.

In this period, the core element behind South African rugby narrowed from an imperial base to become intimately tied to Afrikaner nationalism.

The game had spread amongst the Afrikaner population through POW games in the Boer War, and afterwards the University of Stellensbosch became a virtual training camp for future players and rugby leaders.

Whilst rugby in other imperial countries broadened its appeal to the wider population, in South Africa it was increasingly connected with the country's entrenched ruling minority.

Osler's oxes

The Springbok tourists of 1931-2 won every game in Wales, but they were an unloved team.

Playing with a jumbo pack and a kicking fly-half (captain Benny Osler), they steamrollered the opposition. A strong Welsh side were beaten 8-3 at St Helen's, South Africa's Danie Craven enjoying a superb debut at scrum-half.

Craven went on to coach the 1951-2 tourists, and the contrast to the 1930s side could not have been more marked.

Playing brilliant, exciting rugby they confirmed their position as world champions by claiming the grand slam.

Triple Crown-winners Wales gave them one of their hardest games, and if it wasn't for the inexperience of fly-half Cliff Morgan they may have claimed the win - instead they went down 6-3 in Cardiff.

Malan's maulers

Barbarians v South Africa programme, 1961

The fifth Springbok tourists of 1960-1 were a reactionary side, reflecting a nation still in shock from their series defeat in New Zealand in 1956.

Under captain Avril Malan they played a ruthless, forward-oriented game plan. The squad was characterised by rigid discipline that allowed for little socialising - they were not a popular tour party.

Intimidation was a key part of their game, with British players suffering a string of controversial injuries. The tactics were successful, though, as they completed another grand slam, defeating Wales 3-0 on a quagmire of a pitch at the Arms Park.

The Boks were ambushed in their final game against the Barbarians in Cardiff, though.

Perhaps the best Baa-Baas pack ever played an uncharacteristically pragmatic game, Haydn Mainwaring's tackle on Malan summing up the commitment of the invitation side as they ran out 6-0 winners.

High veldt heartache

In 1964 Wales travelled to South Africa for their first overseas tour. They were in fine spirit after going through the home championship unbeaten and sharing the title with Scotland.

So confident were they that the WRU ignored Danie Craven's advice on the schedule, choosing to play the hardest provincial teams and to arrange the Test match before the side had a proper chance to get acclimatised.

The tourists defeated an East Africa XV and Boland, but the pack lacked mobility on the hard grounds and half-backs Clive Rowlands and Dai Watkins struggled to adapt to the conditions.

Wales were mauled 24-3 in the Test at King's Park, Durban, the heaviest defeat for the men in red for 40 years.

By the time of the 1969-70 Springbok tour a new spirit and confidence had developed in British rugby.

It was an unhappy trip for the South Africans, dogged by off-the-field controversy and poor form on the pitch.

They lacked penetration in the backs and a reliable goal kicker, and a crippling injury list compounded the weaknesses.

The tourists lost two of their seven games in Wales, against Newport and a composite side from Gwent.

Against Llanelli, Scarlets coach Carwyn James prepared his team but stayed in the dressing room during the match as a protest against apartheid. John Taylor refused to play in the Test for the same reason.

The match at the Arms Park was another mud bath, and many feel that Wales' attempt to play adventurous, attacking rugby cost them a first win over the Boks - the game ended 6-6.

Sporting bans

The protests of James and Taylor were just part of a worldwide movement in protest at the apartheid regime in South Africa and its sporting links with the rest of the world.

South Africa had been banned from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and embroiled in the Basil D'Oliveira affair in 1967.

It seems that only threatening their cherished rugby had an effect on the Afrikaner leadership, though, and most important of all was the continuation of rugby links with New Zealand.

When the 1967 All Black tour to South Africa was threatened because of the ban on Maori players, the South African authorities quickly backed down.

Throughout the '70s public opinion in New Zealand grew in opposition to continued links with apartheid South Africa, climaxing with the 1981 Springbok tour that shook New Zealand society to its core.

From 1981-92 there were no official rugby contacts between the countries, and from 1984 no official tours from any IRB teams to South Africa.

Attempts to arrange rebel tours further isolated SARFU from the international community and they played no part in the 1987 and 1991 World Cups.

The exile hurt South Africa, prompting the union to make some of the first moves seen in official circles towards reconciliation with the ANC.

After the political changes that saw the release of Nelson Mandela and the welcoming of a reformed South Africa into the international community, rugby relations with the rest of the world were quickly restored.

The first game with Wales came in 1994 at the Arms Park, where the visitors won 20-12.

South Africa celebrate their 1995 World Cup win
The Springboks made a remarkable return to international rugby

Rainbow Nation

Despite some initial problems, there was a remarkable surge of support for the Springboks amongst the white and black communities in the lead-up to the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

This was the first major event to be held in the Rainbow Nation, and with Mandela and Desmond Tutu adopting the Springbok symbols the nation got behind the 'one team, one country' slogan.

A dramatic, fairy-tale victory over New Zealand followed in the final, concluding a remarkable story that was later immortalised in the Clint Eastwood film "Invictus".

But the occasion was somewhat spoilt when old-school SARFU President Louis Luyt declared in the post-match dinner that the Springboks would have won the previous two World Cups if they had been allowed to compete.

A series of crises followed in the period 1995-7 as it became clear that South African rugby was an unreformed element of the new Rainbow Nation.

Allied to this was an on-field slump that saw South African sides struggle in the new Super 12 and Tri Nations competitions, and against the 1997 Lions.

Despite this, South Africa strolled to comfortable wins over Wales in 1995 (40-11) and 1996 (20-37).

Change slowly came, and under new captain Gary Teichmann the Boks embarked on a record-breaking 17-game winning run.

This peak of form had passed when Wales toured in 1998, but an under-strength Wales squad, who had recently sacked coach Kevin Bowring, were humiliated 96-13 in Pretoria. It could have been more.

It was off the back of this tour that 'The Great Redeemer', Graham Henry, was introduced to Welsh rugby.

His first game was against South Africa in Wembley, and if faith in the Redeemer was strong no-one gave the hitherto-hapless Welsh a chance.

In a remarkable performance the men in red tore into the Boks.

Henry had got selection and motivation spot on and it was only a lack of belief in the final quarter - coupled with a streaker who halted play at the most inopportune of moments - that denied Wales a famous victory.

Wales were at the height of Henry-mania when they next faced the Boks. The occasion was the opening of the Millennium Stadium, 26 June, 1999.

After magnificent wins over France and England and a successful tour to Argentina, confidence was flying in the Welsh camp and anything seemed possible.

Roared on by a vocal 27,000 crowd, Mark Taylor and Gareth Thomas claimed the tries that helped overwhelm the dispirited Boks, giving Wales their first ever victory over the giants of the game.


Mark Taylor makes a break against the Springboks
Wales' recent games against the Springboks have been competitive

These results indicated that the Springboks were a team in decline and they entered the 1999 Rugby World Cup with little hope.

Reverting to a kicking game and forward strength, they showed they were still a force to be reckoned with, though, and they only fell to eventual champions Australia after the most tense of semi-finals at Twickenham.

But the South African game failed to advance from this, and a strong Welsh performance against them in November 2000 came close to gaining a second successive win for the men in red.

An unfancied Wales also ran the Boks close in two Tests on a tour of the high veldt in 2002, and their 2003 World Cup campaign ended in a disappointing quarter-final exit to New Zealand.

South Africa climbed back to the pinnacle of the world game, though, and have continued to dominate Wales.

In 2004 they crushed Mike Ruddock's side 53-18 at Loftus Versfeld then claimed the Tri Nations title, then won 36-38 in Cardiff in the autumn, a result that was more comfortable than the score suggests.

Bryan Habana helped inspire a 16-33 Millennium Stadium the following year, coach Jake White building a settled squad and game plan that saw South Africa enter the 2007 World Cup as one of the few teams fancied to test favourites New Zealand.

Fiji usurped Wales' expected quarter-final place against the Boks and the islanders gave White's team a scare, but they drove triumphantly on before overcoming England in a tense final and becoming the second nation to lift the Webb Ellis trophy twice.

In November 2007, the World Cup winners despatched a Wales side in transition under caretaker coach Nigel Davies, 34-12 at the Millennium Stadium, a match played for the first time for the Prince William Cup.

New coach Warren Gatland oversaw a remarkable turnaround that took Wales to the 2008 Grand Slam, and the men in red headed to South Africa in confident mood for a two-Test summer tour.

They crashed 43-17 at Bloemfontein in easily their worst performance under Gatland to that point, but rallied at Loftus Versfeld where the 37-21 defeat did not do justice to the tourists, Wales missing a glorious chance to record their first Test win in South Africa.

The Springboks finished bottom of the 2008 Tri Nations and Wales were hopeful of taking the Boks' scalp when they clashed in Cardiff in November 2008.

But the visitors withstood a ferocious Wales fight-back to again come out on top in a 20-15 win.

Wales found themselves in the unusual position of favourites ahead of the June 2010 Test against a weakened Springboks side in Cardiff.

Gatland's men built a 16-3 lead in the first quarter, but let it slip and needed two late tries for a respectable score in a 31-34 defeat.

It was the same story when Peter de Villiers' men returned to the Millennium Stadium in November, as Wales led 17-9 at half-time against the world champions.

The Boks pummelled Wales up front in the second half, forwards Willem Alberts and Victor Matfield claiming tries, as the visitors came from behind to win 29-25.

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see also
Wales v South Africa: Full record
28 Sep 06 |  Rugby Union
South Africa anthem
13 Jun 10 |  Rugby Union
Scrum V's rugby history
11 Aug 07 |  Welsh
Wales' rugby fixtures
26 Jun 07 |  Welsh
Wales rugby results archive
15 Oct 03 |  Welsh
Country profile: South Africa
21 Jun 11 |  Country profiles

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