It is believed that the sport of rugby was born in England in 1823 and named after Rugby School where the game’s origins began. The Rugby Football Union was officially formed in London on 26 January 1871. Its purpose was to encourage rugby and its values to flourish across the country, amongst which are teamwork, respect, discipline, enjoyment, and sportsmanship.
The game spread from its elitist origins of England, Scotland, and Ireland to the middle- and working-class areas and to the British colonies – Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
The Growth of Rugby in SA
The founder of rugby in South Africa, Canon George Oglivie, was the headmaster of Diocesan College in Cape Town between 1861-85. With input from the British colonists he helped to develop the emerging game.
On 23 August 1862, British and Afrikaner players got together in Green Point, Cape Town and played the first official rugby match recorded in South Africa.
With the help of British colonists as well as the Boers who adopted the game enthusiastically, rugby spread through other provinces and inland.
The Importance of Rugby in South African History
- During 1906 – 1907, South Africa’s first national rugby team was formed for a tour of the British Isles and France. The team of players were composed of Afrikaners and South African British colonials.
- How the team’s name ‘Springboks’ actually came about is not clear. Some accounts say the team named themselves Springbokken, and the English Media Anglicised the name to ‘Springboks’, which stuck. Others say that the name was coined by the captain, Paul Roos, to stop the British press inventing their own name.
- The Springboks established themselves as a formidable force where they won 26 matches out of the 29 played, and drew one. It helped them gain the respect of the teams in the northern hemisphere, instilling a sense of national pride in South Africa.
- The 1906 Springboks were the first national team to utilise the 3–4–1 scrum formation, perfecting it by 1949 under ‘Oubaas Mark’ Markötter's instigation, and his protégé Danie Craven.
- This tour played a big part in helping erase any bitterness between the Boers and the Brits since the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 - 1902.
“From the 1930s through to the 1960s, the South Africa national rugby union team could make arguable claims to being unofficial world champions.” – Britannica.com
The Whites-only South African Rugby Board was founded in 1889, and eight years later, the South African Coloured Rugby Football Board was founded to organise and oversee club matches between Black South Africans at regional level. The game of rugby played an important role in weakening the divides between various Black religious groups in the Cape.
- The New Zealand tour of 1981 was the last official international test rugby the Springboks played until 1992. Tragically, banned from the International Rugby Board, South Africa was excluded from the first Rugby World Cup held in 1987.
- Apartheid held South Africa and South African sports ransom for far too long and finally, on 19 January 1992, a unified non-racial governing body was established in the South African Rugby Football Union (SARFU).
- In 1992 the IRB awarded the 1995 Rugby World Cup (RWC) to South Africa, and in April 1994, Nelson Mandela became the new president of South Africa. Seizing the opportunity to work towards racial reconciliation, in the months leading up to the RWC, he initiated the 'one team, one country' campaign.
- Nelson Mandela may have changed South African rugby and the symbol Springbok, but more importantly, he changed the meanings they represented in the past, demonstrating that rugby has the power to unite a country.
From its early beginnings, rugby has managed to bring South Africans together. From the Afrikaners and the British after the Anglo-Boer War, to the various Black religious groups in the Cape, slow as it may be, wounds can be healed, races can be united.
We inherited the game of rugby and it has become part of our heritage. Let’s all South Africans stand together and remember the accomplishment of Nelson Mandela, follow in his footsteps, and continue to show the world that we have truly changed by honouring his vision.
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