Crowd or no crowds, the rugby will be special and while we can bemoan the lack of a stadium audience, we still have the luxury of the on-field performers in the Springboks and British & Irish Lions, writes Mark Keohane. For that alone, we must be grateful.
It feels like 1992 all over again, only this time it feels right that the Springboks are playing international rugby again because it is a Springboks team, led by Siya Kolisi, that speaks emphatically to the entire South Africa. It wasn’t the case in 1992.
Back then my emotions were very mixed because the sporting lover in me just wanted to see the Wallabies and All Blacks in South Africa, but I knew there was still so much to do for the country’s supporters to recognize and appreciate the Springboks, by way of one sporting example, as representative of their hopes, aspirations and reality.
So much has changed in South Africa and with the Springboks since that day at Ellis Park in 1992 when the All Blacks won 27-24 and the following week when the world champion Wallabies embarrassed the Springboks 26-3 at Newlands.
You can’t compare the Springboks of 1992 to the Boks of 2021 who will play Georgia at Loftus Versfeld on Friday evening. Everything seemed off in 1992 and everything is on in 2021, in terms of support and emotional investment in Kolisi and his world champion Springboks, who will play as a team for the first time since beating England 32-12 in the 2019 World Cup final in Yokohama, Japan.
That winning moment, pre-Covid, was from a different sporting world, in which crowds stood shoulder to shoulder and fans celebrated victory all across the world, with a smile on their face and a drink in their hand.
On Friday, there will be no Fan Parks and there will be no pubs packed with people and there won’t be anyone in the stands at Loftus. The occasion will appear like an empty shell, but it won’t be because away from the playing field, South African supporters will be tuned into that magical moment when Siya leads out his Super Springboks. It will represent the start of a new dawn for the Springboks and it will also introduce an international season in which it won’t get bigger than the Springboks three-Test series against the British & Irish Lions.
The visitors from Britain and Ireland will play the first of eight tour matches on Saturday against the South African domestic Lions and while they will be expected to win handsomely, the occasion will be a victory for both teams because we will finally be able to speak of the British & Irish Lions as something that is real.
Covid has robbed the tour of all its natural appeal and to deny that would be crazy talk. The Lions, as a rugby spectacle come packaged with 40 000 travelling supporters, all dressed in red. The Springboks, playing at home, are made even more formidable because of the green army of support that gives credence to Springbok rugby’s marketing mantra of being ‘stronger together … forever’.
It won’t be a tour as we know it but it will still be a rugby occasion to be savoured because there isn’t a one-country rugby tour that is bigger than when the Lions visit. The World Cup is professional rugby’s big prize and it happens every four years, and while the Lions (a combination of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales) tour the southern hemisphere every four years, these famed men in red only tour South Africa every 12 years.
I spent an hour in discussion with British & Irish Lions legend Scott Gibbs, a veteran of three Lions tours to New Zealand (1993), South Africa (1997) and Australia (2001) and the player of the series in the Lions win in South Africa in 1997, and by the end of the discussion I just wanted the first Test to kick-off.
Gibbs, charismatic and effusive in his love for South Africa as a country and the Springboks as an opponent, reiterated the best players of the four nations would be playing the world champions on three successive Saturdays, and that is the equal of three World Cup finals.
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