I know nothing about rugby. In 13 years of living in South Africa I’ve attended only one live rugby match. But I know a lot about sports and I know a lot about people. And I know that Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand was something I’ve never seen before: An entire nation of 62 million people coming together — forgetting their gaping divides, forgetting their country’s problems and all the world’s problems — experiencing unadulterated joy while watching a sports team that belongs to all of them.
Let me put this win into terms that my fellow American sports fans can understand: For South Africa, winning the Rugby World Cup is like winning the Superbowl. Except the whole country won, not just one city. And it’s a victory over the entire world.
Can you imagine every person in America coming together and celebrating one thing — anything — at the same moment? I certainly can’t. But that’s what happened in South Africa on Saturday night.
If you’re South African and don’t live under a rock, you’ve probably seen Springbok captain Siya Kolisi’s interview after South Africa’s victory, in which they beat the All Blacks for the second time in a rugby World Cup final. It was South Africa’s second consecutive World Cup win and its fourth total World Cup win, which no rugby team has ever achieved before.
“People that are not from South Africa don’t understand what this means for our country. It’s not just about the game on the field,” Siya said. “Our country goes through such a lot, and we are that bare hope that they have. We’re just grateful that we can be here and I want to tell the people of South Africa: Thank you so much.”
Siya also said, “This team shows what diversity can do. For our team, for our country as well. As soon as we work together, all is possible.”
You might think that sounds idealistic. I might think so too if I hadn’t watched this game with hundreds of South Africans. But luckily I did, and the Springboks made me believe, at least for one night, that all is possible.
Even if you’re not South African, maybe you’ve seen the film Invictus, which is about South Africa’s 1995 World Cup win over New Zealand. If you have, then you might understand why rugby truly is more than just a game for South Africans.
South Africa first won the rugby World Cup in 1995, the year after democracy, which was the first time South Africa was allowed into the tournament. South Africa also hosted the Rugby World Cup that year. Under apartheid, which ended in ’94, rugby had been a segregated, all-white sport in South Africa. But Nelson Mandela and the ’95 Springboks changed that. Rugby became a sport for all South Africans and the country never looked back.
Every sports fan in the world thinks their sport is more than a game, that their team is greater than all the other teams. But in South Africa it’s just undeniably, objectively true.
I was visiting my family in America in October 2019, the last time the Springboks won the World Cup, so this was my first time in the country for a game like this. I thought I knew what to expect; I’ve watched my hometown teams in America win the Superbowl and the World Series.
But nothing could have prepared me for what I saw on Saturday: hundreds of fans watching together with rapt attention, hardly anyone booing or screaming epithets at the refs when things didn’t go the Springboks’ way (can you imagine that in an American sports bar?!), strangers not just high-fiving but full-on embracing in the tightest of bear hugs, people sobbing with joy, singing and dancing in the streets. It was the most emotion I’ve seen in South Africa since the day Mandela died.
I’ll leave it at that — I don’t know enough about rugby to say more. But I’ve got the t-shirt now and I’ve officially become a fan. Thank you, Springboks! Looking forward to the parade.