The last twelve months have not given South African rugby fans much to smile about. Defeats to the likes of Italy, Wales, Argentina and Ireland have seen the Springboks plummet to a lowest ever world ranking of 7th and it is difficult to see how things will improve.
Whilst they still have some supreme talent at their disposal, the pool is not as full as it once was. However, the malaise runs deeper than simply a lack of fresh talent. The Boks are wracked with division and disjointedness on and off the pitch, and the appointment of Allister Coetzee as coach has done nothing to arrest their decline. If anything, it has accelerated.
Thank the heavens then, for their little brother.
Last week saw the Blitzboks – South Africa’s sevens side – win the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series for only the second time in their history. What is more, they did so by some distance, with London’s showpiece finale still to come.
In the spring sunshine of Paris, South Africa strolled to a 15-5 victory over a spirited Scotland side, who had come through a pulsating semi-final against the Blitzboks’ only realistic challengers for the title, England. It was a comprehensive end to a comprehensive series, in which five of the first nine rounds had been won by a truly dominant South Africa.
From a team that failed to make the inaugural Olympic final last year this was an impressive turnaround, and they find themselves back at the pinnacle of a sport they feel they have a right to dominate. For those saddened by their decline in the XV-a-side game, this will provide a something of a welcome tonic.
However, for fans of South African rugby, this will not be at all sufficient. Despite the growth of the sevens game – this last series reached a global audience estimated at around 700 million people – it is still very much the little brother. What matters most to the South African rugby fraternity is success in the game’s bigger, bolder, more brutal form.
This is not to downplay the significance of their sevens success; it is, as previously stated, a mightily impressive achievement. But all those involved in South African rugby – and indeed many who are not – will be hoping that their commanding performances in the sevens will create something of a ripple effect. A feel-good factor which will spread through the game in the country, healing divisions and bringing a sleeping giant back to life.
Given how divergent the two forms are, there is no guarantee that success in one will equate to success in the other. A quick look at Fiji’s records in both sevens and XV-a-side illustrates this point perfectly. However, a healthy global game needs a healthy Springbok side, so here’s to hoping that it does.