The Toughest Team in Sports?


By Nicolas Brulliard

(Wall Street Journal, 7/31/09)



South Africa’s rugby players maul their way to the top; a punch in the scrum


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Just before a recent game, South African rugby player Schalk Burger stated his belief that a rugby match isn’t a rugby match unless it “starts with a bang.”


After less than a minute of play, Mr. Burger was sin-binned, or penalized, for what looked like an attempt to gouge an opponent’s eyeballs.


Far from condemning the act that earned Mr. Burger an eight-week ban, South Africa’s head coach Peter de Villiers suggested that the offended parties “go to the nearest ballet shop, get some nice tutus and get a great dancing show going.”


South Africa’s Springboks, named after the graceful and rather docile springbok gazelle, have run afoul of rugby laws more often than most. But this team’s physical prowess and aggressive mindset have helped put them at the pinnacle of the sport. The reigning World Cup-champion Springboks have just vanquished some of the best British and Irish players in the game, and last week beat New Zealand 28-19 in their first match of the Tri-Nations, an annual rugby competition for southern hemisphere teams. A victory in this tournament, which continues through Sept. 19, would cement their place as the undisputed kings of rugby.


The Springboks have demonstrated their toughness throughout the last century—sometimes playing with broken bones or honing their skills by tackling large animals—but the origins of their physical dominance can be traced back much farther.


In rugby, size matters, especially when it comes to a team’s pack of forwards. Weight is an undeniable advantage in a scrum, a fearsome tangle in which players fight for possession of the ball. Height is a distinct plus in a lineout—where players leap high in the air to receive a ball thrown back onto the field. South African rugby has long been dominated by Afrikaners, a population group that has a seemingly endless supply of large people.


“They’ve got some big old dudes, and it’s always physical,” said Lee Mears, an English player, after a recent match. “The South Africans pride themselves in the scrum, so they’re never going to disappoint you in that area.”


Most observers explain Afrikaners’ oversized proportions with genetics. After all, they say, the first Europeans to colonize the southern tip of the continent came from Holland, and the Dutch are among the tallest people in the world.


Raj Ramesar, professor of human genetics at the University of Cape Town, said there is little scientific evidence available, but he said genetic selection likely played a role as only the fittest and strongest specimens made the grueling boat trip and later thrived in an environment plagued by disease and angry Zulu warriors. A “sissy” would not have survived the hardships, Mr. Ramesar said.


Locals also credit arduous farm work for enhancing their inherent physical attributes, and rarely did it get more arduous than for Tiaan Strauss, who has represented both the Springboks and Australia. Mr. Strauss, who played much of his career before the game turned professional in the mid-1990s, said he used to make extra money by capturing wildebeests and other large antelopes.


“Sometimes you tackle them, but mainly you sort of catch them by the horn and wrestle them to the ground,” Mr. Strauss said matter-of-factly.


Mr. Strauss said the activity, while earning him cuts, bruises and the occasional shoulder injury and twisted ankle, also helped condition him for the game.


Mr. Strauss’ feat was topped by that of Andy MacDonald, who wore the Springbok jersey in the mid-1960s. Mr. MacDonald was tracking a livestock-killing lion when the predator leapt on him, and he was left fighting off the feline with his bare hands.


“The lion bit off part of Andy’s ear and clawed his legs and lower body,” wrote South African rugby historian Paul Dobson in an email. “Andy put one hand into the lion’s jaws and eventually the lion left him.” Mr. MacDonald received more than 400 stitches, Mr. Dobson said.


While some display their toughness by manhandling large beasts, others show their courage by staying on the field after sustaining serious injuries. André Joubert broke his hand in a tackle during the quarterfinals of the 1995 World Cup, yet went on to play two more matches—this without taking any painkiller. Mr. Joubert said he suffered few long-term consequences other than a shortened finger. “I had to change my golf grip a bit,” he said.


Rugby union, the most popular form of the game, was popularized in the early 19th century. Played on a field roughly the size of an American football field, 15 players on each side try to score by carrying an oblong ball over the goal line or kicking it through the goalposts. South Africa is one of about 100 national teams ranked by the International Rubgy Board. Every four years the top teams come together to play in the World Cup, which South Africa has so far won twice, in 1995 and 2007.


As soon as the sport was imported to South Africa by the English in the late 1800s, the Afrikaners quickly adopted it as their own. They first saw it as a way to get back at the British for humiliations suffered during the Boer War, but the game became synonymous with Afrikaner nationalism during the apartheid era, said John Nauright, director of the International Academy of Sport at George Mason University.


As recently as 15 years ago, memories of the Boer War’s internment camps still loomed large in the psyche of Afrikaner rugby players, said Mark Andrews, a former Springbok forward. “Whenever you played against England, it was brought up almost as a motivational war cry that we have to avenge what the English did to our forefathers,” said Mr. Andrews, who is of  English descent. The historical reason was lost on adversaries: “One guy actually said to me, ‘You guys play rugby like you’re angry,’” he said.


The Springboks have harvested more than their share of yellow and red cards, reflecting the difficulty for players to walk the thin line between legal aggressiveness and rogue behavior. Since 2000, the Springboks have received 60 yellow cards and six red cards, while their direct opponents collected only 25 yellow cards and three red ones, according to the South African Rugby Union. Cards sanction both foul play and technical offenses.


Some misdeeds are hard to defend. In a game shortly after the team’s 1995 World Cup title, 6-foot-6-inch Kobus Wiese knocked out his 6-foot-10 Welsh opponent, Derwyn Jones, with a single punch. When asked about the incident, Mr. Wiese first denied it ever took place before explaining that he just retaliated after being hit. Mr. Jones remembers it quite differently: His team was leading then, and Mr. Wiese saw an opportunity to destabilize the opposition.


“It’s pathetic because it’s quite clear that it was a punch from behind, and it was a cowardly punch,” said Mr. Jones, who noted that he and Mr. Wiese now get along well. “He was a coward for doing that.”


To be sure, the Springboks are not always the guilty party. When they toured South Africa in 1974, the British and Irish Lions’ captain had a secret call for his players to punch the nearest Springbok. A 1993 game against an Argentinean side degenerated into a 30-man brawl after a punch was thrown in a scrum.


“We were sort of ready for it, so all hell broke lose and we had a big fight for about five minutes,” said Mr. Strauss, captain of the Springboks at the time.


With youngsters starting to play rugby while in primary school or earlier and a network of schools and academies preparing them for the professional level, South Africa is assured of a steady flow of talent in coming years, said Eric Sauls, who has coached several junior Springbok squads.


For now, though, the task at hand for the Springboks is to succeed in the Tri-Nations, which includes Australia and its strong defensive play and New Zealand, which favors running the ball from all parts of the field. South Africa has won the grueling competition only twice in 13 years, but it believes it is now ready to take the trophy home.


Last week, by beating New Zealand, the Springboks snatched back the No. 1 ranking back from the All Blacks. And the two teams will play each other again Saturday.


“With the team that we’ve got, we’d be naive to think that we shouldn’t aim to take the Tri-Nations and win it,” said Springbok captain John Smit recently.



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