JOHANNESBURG – The 2019 Rugby World Cup final kicks off in a few hours’ time. It has been a quite remarkable journey by captain Siya Kolisi and his men to get to this point – a final 80-minute battle with England with world rugby glory on the line.
Coach Rassie Erasmus was brought back to South Africa from Munster in Ireland where he had been coaching less than two years ago to save the Boks after the disastrous 2016 and 2017 seasons, and how he has repaid the faith shown in him.
The Boks were down and out in 2017, hitting an all-time low of seventh in the world rankings; now they are one win away from grabbing the biggest trophy of them all in the game, the Webb Ellis Cup.
A number of people have played significant and telling roles in the Boks reaching the final in Yokohama on Saturday, but it is the squad of players who have sweated blood and tears to fulfil their goals and dreams. And they all have their own personal, and sometimes hard, stories to tell of how they have got to this stage in their lives.
Fullback Willie le Roux was dropped from the Bok team in 2017 and many thought his Test career was over after he’d headed abroad, but he has been Erasmus’ first choice from the off.
Star wing Cheslin Kolbe, who is fit to play on Saturday after missing out in the semi-final last week, was once considered too small for Test rugby so he headed to France to play there, yet he is now an international superstar and nominee for World Player of the Year. Fellow wing, the try-machine Makazole Mapimpi, was playing second tier domestic rugby just four years ago at Border; now he is a national hero.
Defensive organiser and the man with the soft hands in midfield, centre Lukhanyo Am, was also playing for Border four years ago and the Southern Kings just three seasons ago. He is now the first choice No 13 by some distance. His midfield partner, Damian de Allende, one of the Boks’ biggest stars in Japan over the last seven weeks, was so out of form in 2017 he was dropped from the side.
Flyhalf Handre Pollard, who kicked the Boks to victory against Wales last week, almost had his arm amputated three years ago after picking up an infection in hospital following shoulder surgery, while scrumhalf Faf de Klerk was banished from the Boks by former coach Allister Coetzee in 2017 and he, like Le Roux, opted to play his rugby in England.
Duane Vermeulen, who’s also based himself overseas over the last few years, was brought back into Bok picture by Erasmus and what a revelation he has been. Pieter-Steph du Toit, another nominee for World Player of the Year, is now considered one of the game’s leading blindside flanks, but just two years ago he was still a second-row forward.
And then there’s captain Kolisi, who in 2007 when John Smit lifted the Webb Ellis Cup watched the final in a tavern because his family could not afford a television set. Significantly, he’ll wear the No 6 on his back today – the same jersey worn by Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandela when the Boks first won the Webb Ellis Cup in 1995.
Locks Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager have had their own personal issues to deal with in recent times; Etzebeth being accused of racism and assault, while De Jager had to fight back from injury just before the start of the World Cup to reclaim his place in the team.
Tighthead prop Frans Malherbe has had to deal with criticism about his place in the team, yet he has anchored the strongest and most stable scrum at the tournament, while loosehead veteran Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira had to leave his family and friends behind in Zimbabwe many years ago to come to South Africa to fulfil his rugby dream. He will bow out of the game today, having become a Bok hero.
Hooker Bongi Mbonambi has also fought against adversity to star for the Boks. Having been schooled in Pretoria, his dream was to play for the Bulls, which he did, but he never got a proper chance playing behind former Bok captain Adriaan Strauss and so moved to Cape Town to play for the Stormers. He stood tall and then also jumped ahead of Malcolm Marx in the Bok queue to earn the No 2 jersey.
Marx, a former SA Rugby Player of the Year, hasn’t moped about being demoted to the bench and fulfilled his “bomb squad role” brilliantly, alongside fellow front-rankers Vincent Koch, who got his “first-team” break because of Trevor Nyakane falling out of the squad because of injury. He’s come in from the outside – from Saracens in England. Fellow prop Steven Kitshoff has also had to deal with being “dropped” in recent times after being Erasmus’ first choice loosehead last year, but Mtawarira has again taken over the No 1 jersey.
Locks RG Snyman and Franco Mostert have been outstanding from off the bench – the latter having come good in the last four years, but only after leaving the Bulls because of limited opportunities. At the Lions he became a star and now turns out for Gloucester in England, under Johan Ackermann’s watchful eye. He’s also had to deal with being replaced in the starting team.
Francois Louw, the three-time World Cup representative, has amassed over 70 Test caps, but has never been fully appreciated. Every Bok coach though has rated him and brought him back from Bath in England to play for the Boks.
Back-up scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies wasn’t even in the Bok picture a year ago and few people outside of the Western Cape had heard of him. Yet, he’s been one of the biggest stars for the Boks in 2019 and has been named as one of World Rugby’s nominees for Breakthrough Player of the Year; talk about making it big quickly!
And then there’s the veteran Frans Steyn, who won the World Cup as a 20-year-old in 2007. He’s been criticised, picked, dropped, spoken badly of … and then picked again, by Erasmus, who didn’t hesitate to name him in his World Cup squad. Could he join Os du Randt as the only two Boks to win two World Cup gold medals?
And let’s not forget the other eight (or 10) squad members, who’ve been a part of the Japanese journey, but won’t feature in the final. They have played big contributing roles by motivating their team-mates, keeping them sharp in training, pushing them to higher limits and even by holding tackle bags. They should not be forgotten.
Third-choice hooker Schalk Brits is 38 years old. He’d retired from all rugby last year and was ready to start studying at Oxford, but a call from Erasmus changed his mind and he’d become a Bok captain through the course of this year.
Reserve prop Thomas du Toit, who was a loosehead and worked hard to become a tighthead, could earn a winners medal after replacing the unfortunate Nyakane in the squad, while Kwagga Smith was still a Sevens specialist three years ago. He gave up that game to focus on becoming a Bok, and he, too, could now be a World Cup winner!
Scrumhalf Cobus Reinach played his socks off in the English Premiership to get picked after being overlooked last year, and for many years before, and his hat-trick of tries against Canada will be remembered for a long-time. Flyhalf Elton Jantjies did everything asked of him when picked and he’ll have fond memories of the tournament.
S’bu Nkosi can say he played in a World Cup semi-final, while Warrick Gelant and Damian Willemse, who replaced the injured Jesse Kriel, can say they scored World Cup tries.
Getting to the 2019 Rugby World Cup final has been a big group effort with a number of different individuals having all played their part in the journey.
All that is left now is for the Boks to give it one more push and, who knows, perhaps the glory will be theirs.