Rugby in South Africa Is Not Only a Game

by | Oct 30, 2023 | Johannesburg, Sports | 28 comments

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.

South African fans cheering on the Springboks at the Pirates Rugby Club in Joburg
South African fans at the Pirates Club cheer on the Springboks (South Africa’s national animal and the name of the national rugby team) after their first score of the match.
Nervous fans
Nervous fans.
Crazy Springbok fans
Same fans a few minutes later.
The moment of victory
The moment of victory. The Boks barely scraped it out, winning 12-11. All three of South Africa’s knockout round wins — against France, England, and New Zealand, respectively — were by one point.
Also right after the win.
Happily stunned
I saw quite a few people looking jubilantly stunned like this.
Thorsten's sketch of the fans at Pirates gives a good feel for the crowd. I'd say there were at least 500 people there, watching the game on at least a dozen screens
Thorsten‘s sketch of the fans at Pirates gives a good feel for the crowd. I’d say there were at least 500 people there, watching the game on at least a dozen screens.

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.

Springboks fans
A rainbow nation of Springbok fans.
Superfans in makarapas
Superfans wearing the most spectacular makarapas.
Makarapa man
Makarapa man after the win. I’m not sure where those flames were coming from but I don’t think anything burned down.
Nice guy at Pirates
Just a nice guy who asked me to take his picture. Sorry I didn’t get your name, dude. I hope you see this.
Fourth Avenue Parkhurst after the win
4th Avenue, Parkhurst, just up the street from Pirates, after the win. Hopefully the car made it out unscathed.
Rugby jubilation
More jubilation.

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.

Jon Hrusa photo of Mandela and Francois Pienaar
Jon Hrusa, my late partner, took this photo of Springbok captain Francois Pienaar holding the trophy after South Africa’s World Cup win in 1995.

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.

South Africans singing the national anthem
South Africans singing the national anthem before Saturday’s match. I’m now motivated to finally learn all the words to the national anthem, which includes five different South African languages.
South African flag at rugby
There were so many South African flags flying on Saturday but for some reason this is the only flag shot I’m happy with.

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.

Heather and Thorsten after the rugby
Thorsten and I in the middle of the joyful mayhem.

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.


  1. Barend van der Merwe

    It is really something special. Good to see that you and Thorsten had a good time. I didn’t watch the game but followed it on the internet and radio. Also watched the highlights afterwards, as I always do. Let’s hope that South Africa can also pull off a win in the cricket world cup, which will end in November. These sports like cricket, rugby and football, which we call “soccer” just like Americans do, we got these sports from the British, which colonised South Africa. An interesting piece of history which I only recently learned: For their very first match, the Springboks borrowed the green jerseys of a school called Bishops High School in Cape Town. Ever since, the green jerseys became a trademark of the team. Even in this tournament, fans were relieved to hear the green jerseys will be used again. I was 10 years old in 1995 when the Boks won the cup for the first time.

    • 2summers

      That’s so cool. Yes I was wondering what happened to those spearmint-colored jerseys – they didn’t seem to last long!

      • Thea

        Green and gold are the South African sporting colours, whether athletics, cricket or swimming. And yes, you should learn the South African anthem and also understand what the lyrics mean. It’s beautiful.

  2. Ms. Nancy Anne McDaniel

    How how wonderful What joy. And what great photos. (and I had to look up makarapas). And way better than SuperBowl because, as you say, EVERYONE wanted the same team to win. How proud. And what a wonderful time for South Africa in the middle of so many not so good times lately. Congratulations Springboks! (By the way, there used to be a rugby club in Chicago called The Lions and their bumper sicker said “It Takes Leather Balls to Play Rugby” There ya have it!)

    • 2summers

      Hahaha. That’s certainly true.

  3. Rosemary

    Thanks Heather- wonderful account! Incredible that national fervour can be directed in such a positive unifying way. Loved all the jokes on FB. So intrigued by Roger Federer (whose mom is from Kempton Park!) being in the change room after the game and proud holder of a SA passport. Delighted to see Princess Charlene jump for joy and embrace her husband

    • 2summers

      What?! I had no idea about Roger Federer! That’s so cool.

    • Thea

      Roger took his mum & his 2 sets of twins to watch the game.

  4. dizzylexa

    You have captured the spirit of the nation that can come together and does in such instances, so well that I got goosebumps reading this and looking at your amazing photographs all over again. We needed this so much right now and as the Springboks play as a team so can we. Great blog.

    • 2summers

      Thanks Gail. xxxxxx

  5. janecshearer

    That’s great to hear. In New Zealand, one of the sentiments expressed has been that if someone else was going to win, people are happy it was South Africa, particularly after hearing the captain speak.

    • 2summers

      Awww, that is so nice! PS, I love the haka.

  6. Tricia

    Heather — when Ingrid and I visited you in South Africa,, the rugby team was staying in our hotel one night. At breakfast —
    these stunning, big, beautiful boys/men troop into the dining room. Unforgettable.

    • 2summers

      I feel like I vaguely remember you talking about that!

  7. Tricia Pepper

    Hey Heather – tried to leave a comment about the rugby team staying at our hotel in South Africa (when Ingrid and I came to town). Those boys/men are huge, stunning giants. Quite the sight/experience to share an elevator with beautiful, young rugby players.

  8. Linda Evans

    Hey Heather! We spent the evening of the semi-final in a Shebeen in Hertfordshire called Khoi Khoi. Amazing time, amazing people and the whole place dancing and singing afterwards to Shosholoza! Linda Evans.

    • 2summers

      A shebeen in Hertfordshire! Sounds amazing 🙂

  9. David H

    As a South African I am thrilled to see how rugby has become more appealing to people of different backgrounds and no longer seen as a ‘white sport’ despite what our politicians want us to believe.

    • Menattly Swartz

      Well said David!!!

  10. Paul

    Nice. Teeny point: we became a democracy in 1994. Have been independent since we became a republic in 1912…

    • 2summers

      Good point. I changed it.

    • Mike Stark

      We became a Union (But still a Crown colony ) in 1910 . Became a republic in 1961

  11. Johan Visser

    Hi Heather, what a wonderful post. I got tears in my eyes as I’m making this comment. Thanks for capturing the spirit of SA and broadcasting it to a wider audience! Love. Johan

    • 2summers

      Ah, thank you so much Johan 🙂

  12. AutumnAshbough

    No one boos the refs? No one whistles angrily? That is the single most amazing fact about South African rugby.

    • 2summers

      Well to be fair, I did see a few people silently giving the finger to the screen a couple of times. But it was certainly nothing like an American football game.

  13. Lani

    I love this for South Africa. And watching your fashion evolution over the years 😉 xxoo


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