The South African rugby team: heroes or villains of #RWC2019?

By Oliver Brett

In early November South Africa defeated England by 32 – 12 with a bruising and dominant performance that saw them deservedly become world champions for the third time. They produced their most complete performance in their most important fixture, physically and emotionally peaking at the optimum point of their four year cycle.

There was a lot to admire about the team. Siya Kolisi had overcome personal adversity to become the first black captain of the Springboks. Having grown up in the Zwide township outside of Port Elizabeth he fulfilled the ultimate sporting dream when he lifted the trophy, rising from the bottom to the top of the world. They were an underdog tale, pundits were quick to crown England after their spectacular semi-final victory over the All-Black,s but South Africa turned up on final day and ripped up the script.

Embed from Getty Images

I myself had a soft spot for the coaching ticket, the majority of whom had been stationed in my own Irish province of Munster prior to taking up to positions with South Africa. Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber, and former Munster back Felix Jones had all cut their coaching teeth at Munster and surely this had some contribution to their World Cup success with the Boks. However, when one steps back from the fairy tale which the broader media have presented, questions can be raised as to the merit of the 2019 World Cup winners.

Most obvious to all observers would be the style of play. Rugby as a sport has undergone a complete transformation in the last twenty-four years. Professional rugby only came into existence post the 1995 World Cup and even after that it took years for league structures to take place that would take advantage of professionalism. In fact in most leagues outside of the wealthy English Premiership it took a lot longer for professionalism to be the norm. Munster veterans speak openly of a rampant drinking culture and disregard for nutrition which continued well into the new millennium. This current generation of players are the first group to not contain those who have straddled the border between amateur and professional rugby. Rugby had been a game to these people, a game that they loved and their passion kept them involved. Nowadays, a child can dream of becoming a professional rugby player as a legitimate career opportunity. Professionalism has brought larger coaching teams, video analysis, performance analysis, iPads with personalised video “homework”, advanced nutrition, and advanced strength and conditioning. Paying players and coaches for the dedication and sacrifices required to compete in elite level sport is clearly not a bad thing. However, unlike football, the effect of having well-coached, higher skill level, faster, and stronger athletes does not always improve the spectacle of the game.

South Africa, for better or worse, is the epitome of the modern professional rugby side. Extremely well coached, they play an aggressive and relentless breed of power rugby with a fast defensive line of six-foot-plus giants smashing their opposition to the ground where their domineering breakdown work can take effect. They relish the ugly side of the game; slowing the ball down, using one-out-runners often, making a mess of the breakdown, disrupting opposition set pieces, box-kicking endlessly, holding possession as long as possible to draw penalty fouls, all of this is in the South African repertoire. I don’t necessarily buy the pre-match narrative that England winning is a victory for the sport of rugby, because I always felt that so much of their platform for playing attacking rugby came from power runners such as Tuilagi, Vunipola, and Curry to push back defences and allow backs Daly, May and Watson to wreak havoc. As soon as England didn’t have this easy go-forward-ball against the South African forward pack the team crumbled, unable to react creatively enough to cause the Boks any problems. It was not the “brains against brawn” contest that it was billed to be.

Modern rugby can very often be two teams of very large men trying to bulldoze through the middle of one other to reach the opposition try-line. Moving the ball laterally into wide areas with any sense of urgency or pace is considered too much of a risk in the age of statistical analysis. Why take a risk when you can hang onto the ball and win the war of attrition? I am well aware of this trend after having watched Joe Schmidt enforce it upon the Irish rugby team for six years. We were the best team in the world in 2018 but we achieved this playing statistics-driven crash-ball territory rugby. In the 2019 Six Nations Ireland had the most carries, missed the least amount of tackles, and had the second lowest penalties conceded. In spite of this we finished third, having been comprehensively beaten by Wales and England who out-powered and out-fought us. This is the crux of the play-style, if you play a power game and get out-powered, how can you win? In answer to this question came Japan, the people’s champion of the 2019 World Cup. They were a team lacking in stature who found a way to negate this weakness; keep the ball moving, pull these big men around the pitch, be quick, be nimble, and offload the darn rugby ball. Of course this was masterminded by a Kiwi; head coach Jamie Joseph. Unfortunately, after thrilling the world to reach their first every Rugby World Cup quarter-final (and dominating the first half of said game), they did succumb to the power of a relentless South Africa side. Question remains, with a technically proficient tier one nation, how far could Joseph’s fast paced rugby go?

Without any widespread alternative to a power game the clear way to become the best team in the world is to become the most brutally powerful. The photo displayed above was leaked from the Springbok’s pre-World Cup camp. Physiques like this did not exist in rugby twenty years ago, and if they did it was certainly attributed to a small minority not an entire squad, forwards and all. There have been huge advances in sport science over the last two decades and no-one can dispute that, however purely believing that such physical transformations can be made with only diet and exercise changes seems naive at best. In fact, I think the majority of those that follow sport just don’t want to know the truth. They are happy to sit back and witness the spectacle without looking deeper for fear that what lies beneath will detract indefinitely from that which they love. Like having a partner who evidently cheats, asking the question means that your relationship may well be changed forever. If he/she still comes home every night then why raise the alarm and cause undue disruption?

One should not make claims like these without evidence, and in the case of South Africa the evidence is beginning to indicate a doping culture from the bottom up. Lets start at the top and work our way down. Springbok’s winger Aphiwe Dyantyi was named World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year in 2018. On the 2nd of July 2019 he failed a drugs test during a World Cup training camp. Of course he immediately denied the test results and demanded his B-sample be tested, as is his right. His B-sample came back containing a cocktail of prohibited substances: Methandienone, Methyltestosterone and Ligandrol or LGD 4033. Neil Francis wrote a fantastic article this week explaining the effects of these substances combined in the system of an athlete. Bottom line, Dyantyi was as guilty as they come and is facing a four-year ban. Francis asks a legitimate question as to whether bans are the correct course of action and maybe to seek co-operation from the dopers is what is needed to find the root of the problem. Taking such a rigid and complex course of steroids suggests some form of medical assistance, prompting serious concerns about who is aware of the substance use and at what level they are involved.

This is a question worth posing when you look further down the ladder to South African schoolboy rugby. In last years edition of South Africa’s premier schoolboy rugby tournament; Craven Week, six schoolboys tested positive for steroids. There was evidence that they had been using steroids since the age of 14. In a fascinating interview with Ross Tucker, Irish radio sports program Off The Ball were told that collusion between parents and coaches allows a doping culture to flourish. The stakes are so high for young players looking to gain a professional contract and the demand for bigger and stronger players is so great that many feel they have no choice but to chemically enhance themselves. One must ask, does this stop once the schoolboy players go pro? They have already seen the benefits of doping and the chances of being caught remain small. At the top level, Hendre Stassen, a 21-year-old South African second-row at Stade Francais, is facing a four-year ban for elevated testosterone levels found in a test taken in May. Gerbrandt Grobler served a two-year ban before being signed to Munster by current South Africa head coach Rassie Erasmus, who apparently had few scruples about signing a known doper.

All of the players in the South African World Cup winning squad came through this schoolboy system which has been dogged for years with positive tests. The South African authorities claim that this is because they test more than anyone else does at schoolboy level, this is somewhat true. Maybe ignorance is bliss for the remainder of the global rugby fraternity. Worth noting that in countries such as Ireland the laws around testing schoolboys are much stricter given the intimate nature of the process and the potential for the safety of the child to be compromised. This is an argument for another time. Right now the eyes of the world are on South Africa as best in show, lets just hope that time doesn’t tell a very different story of their heroic triumph.

Featured image: GovernmentZA/CC/flickr

Leave a Reply