Day of the underdogs: How hope inspired Boks to victory


It had to be Cheslin Kolbe. It had to be Makazole Mapimpi. And it just had to be Siya Kolisi. It was the day of the underdogs when pressure gave way to hope and the Springboks defied conventional wisdom to lift the William Webb Ellis Cup for the third time.

Central to this triumph were these three men who for the better part of their lives and playing careers have had doubts casts over their ability and rugby “pedigree”. Now, after South Africa’s 32-12 victory over England, they will be talked about in the annals of South African rugby history.

In truth, all 23 Springboks in this team put in a good shift, putting their bodies on the line. Lood de Jager dislocated his shoulder in the process. His replacement Franco Mostert just continued the Boks’ dominance at the breakdown and bossed England into submission on defence.

The Springbok team put in 206 tackles compared to England’s 128, thanks mainly to Pieter-Steph du Toit (61 tackles), Kolisi (56), Lood de Jager (50) and Damian de Allende (49). They knew what they were playing for.

“We started talking about pressure. In South Africa pressure is not having a job. Pressure is one of your close relatives murdered,” Erasmus said afterwards.

“Because South Africa has a lot of problems and we started talking about how rugby shouldn’t be something that puts pressure on you. It should be something that creates hope. But you can’t create hope just by talking about it, hope is not something you say in a beautiful tweet.” They were poetic words from Erasmus who clearly understood the magnitude of the moment, and that it required a fair deal of hard work to get to this point.

In winning the Rugby World Cup final in Yokohama on Saturday, the Springboks accomplished something so much more than ownership of the trophy itself. They captured the country’s imagination with their bravery and camaraderie and took us back to a time when the national team played for hope, to begin with, at a time when we needed it the most.

In 1995 jersey number 6 entered our consciousness and the legends who wore it came to represent unity, hope, and reconciliation. On Saturday, 24 years later, Kolisi, with the number six on his back, took the expectation and pressure on his shoulders and used it to unite a nation behind one team, “one goal” for 80 minutes and hopefully beyond. This from a man who some say doesn’t deserve his place in the team. Many thought Francois Pienaar wasn’t the best number 6 in South Africa in 1995, but looking back who can deny his role in leading the team from the front?

Kolisi and the team posted a video on Twitter from the victorious changeroom, thanking South Africans back home for their support. They were speaking directly to a country in need of a reason to smile, in need of healing and hope; maybe even a second transformation since the one started in 1995. This victory was for all South Africans who have been through a lot this year - but for millions, the promised miracle never truly arrived.

South Africans will wake up in the afterglow, and possibly a dreadful hangover, that comes with being crowned world champions. And when reality bites they’ll be reminded of our challenges, as laid bare in Tito Mboweni’s Medium Term Budget Policy Statement and every decent news bulletin. We are a nation living in debt, stressed and generally in need of rejuvenation, but for now, we will sing and dance to forget.

Mapimpi, from Tsholomnqa outside East London, defied every odd thrown at him in life to rise to the pinnacle of world rugby, becoming the first South African to score a try in a World Cup final. It was try number six for him in this World Cup.

Mapimpi lost his mother, brother and sister at an early age. He understood the pressure that Erasmus spoke about better than anyone else, but when his moment arrived in the 65th minute he handled it with composure, keeping his wits about him to ignite and finish off a move on the left side, thanks to some good work by Lukhanyo Am. In all Mapimpi got 7 carries and made 48 metres in this match.

“Hope is when you play well on Saturday and people watch the game and have a nice braaivleis and feel good afterwards. No matter if you’ve got political differences or religious differences or whatever; for those 80 minutes you agree with a lot of things you might disagree on,” Erasmus said.

His own transformation of this Bok team over the past 18 months has been nothing short of a miracle too, but through sound values and sacrifice Erasmus has turned this Bok team into winners when many never gave them a chance against this England team.

“We just believed that this was not a burden, it’s our privilege and the moment you see it in that way it becomes a helluva privilege to try and fix those things.

“The moment you see it in that way it becomes a helluva privilege. We started working towards that, and that’s how we saw this whole World Cup campaign.”

Cheslin Kolbe has been told throughout his career that he is too small to play for the Springboks. Game after game he answered his critics, he dazzled his opponents with his dancing feet, until he eventually had the final say in the 73rd minute of the match, slipping passed an Owen Farrell tackle and racing to the try line before anyone else touched him. He is the elusive Springbok who evades a predator’s claws with agility and speed.

Kolbe refused to listen to conventional rugby minds who said that at 170cm and 74kg he would not make it at international level. He settled the argument on Saturday with minutes to go in the match.

In the end it was a cohesive team performance that produced a world cup winning performance that may inspire generations to come. They were united in the fight, and willing to play the match of their lives to achieve success. The Boks knew that winning this World Cup meant more to them and their countrymen than their opponents. They played for unity, for hope and for each other on the biggest stage of their lives; and they played for pride, our pride.

WATCH: 'This will unite us' - SA celebrates Springbok triumph

Adrian Ephraim is the sports editor and deputy news editor at Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter on @adrianephraim