Rugby World Cup 2011 - Webb Ellis Trophy
Rugby World Cup 2011 - Webb Ellis Trophy

Webb Ellis Trophy

(Image : WRNews/SA WP)


For South Africa, the Rugby World Cup started in 1995. Prior to that, we were excluded for reasons that had nothing to do with rugby or the players, and since South Africa had ranked for almost a century among the world’s leading rugby playing nations, the real games only began when the tournament came to this country. The favourites that year were the reigning world champions, Australia, and they came to the first match against the Springboks as the only team in the tournament to have remained unbeaten in 1995. Names like Campese, Lynagh, Horan and Little were commonplace in one of the most glittering line-ups the tournament has known. If there was an Achilles heel, it lay in the fact that the team was laden with veterans, and they might not have quite been the players they were when they demolished the All Blacks in the semi-finals at the 1991 version at Dublin’s Landsdowne Road. I was there that day, and the Wallabies were awesome. It wasn’t surprising when they rolled England in the final, nor was it surprising, given their “seniority”, that the Boks thumped them 27-18 at Newlands in 1995.

South Africa’s bid to become the first country in the world to retain the William Webb Ellis trophy starts this weekend, and there’s a bit of déjà vu with the Springbok team of 2011 and the Australians of 1995. Like them, we are the reigning world champions, and like them, we have a massively experienced team, indeed, the most capped group of players ever to attend the World Cup tournament. And like those Aussies of yore, it’s probably fair to say that Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, John Smit, Fourie du Preez and Bryan Habana are not quite up to the game they were able to put on when they last hoisted the trophy in Paris in 2007. No fewer than 10 of them are north of 30. The lead-up to this year’s tournament tells us their form is not the same, and yet there is one stock difference between South Africa now and Australia in 1995. That lies in the fact that our performances going into this year’s tournament have been anything but inspiring, though the suggestion is that we’ve kept our best game until last, and that other sides might have peaked already. Even if it were not so, we’d have to be telling ourselves that, otherwise there’d be little purpose in attending, and so we’ll have to wait for the next few weeks to find out.

As matters stand, the international rankings consider New Zealand and Australia to be ahead of us, and deservedly so. There is nothing about the Northern Hemisphere sides to prompt the belief that the Cup could find a new home in that direction, but knock-out tournaments of this sort have been known to produce the unexpected. Who could believe that the All Blacks, who have undoubtedly been consistently the best team in the world for the past two decades or more, have not lifted the trophy since 1987? That, we guess, is all we need to know in trying to find a winner, and that breathes hope into the sails of every country in attendance with a pretence for the Higher Things In Life. The mind games started long ago: it’s time for the real games now.