Last week I went to OR Tambo to welcome the Springboks home from their Rugby World Cup campaign. It seemed like the perfect way to round off what for me was the most special RWC to date…even though we only brought home the bronze.
Let’s rewind to October 2014. I had applied for tickets to a couple of games in the ballot stage, and was anxiously awaiting the verdict – would I be going to Rugby World Cup 2015 in England or not? To say I was overexcited when I got the mail to say I had been allocated a ticket to South Africa vs Scotland would be an understatement of the highest order! Perhaps there was a tinge of disappointment that I didn’t get tickets to more games (although I’m sure my credit card heaved a sigh of relief at that), but giddy nonetheless.
Because I have friends and family in Ireland and the UK, I built a nice little itinerary around the one game that I did get a ticket for, and booked my flights and accommodation super early. That meant I got great prices but it did hamper me from trying to get tickets to any other games once they became available much closer to the tournament. I’ve had a lot of people ask me if it was really worth going all that way and spending all that money for just one game. The answer is unreservedly yes! I’m not sure that people really understand how much I love rugby, and the Springboks, and how emotionally invested I am in that team. More on that later.
After a wonderful time spent catching up with family and friends in Dublin and London, and having done a few obligatory touristy things (the tour of Shakespeare’s The Globe theatre is a must for any book nerds out there), I was ridiculously excited to board the train to Newcastle for the main purpose of my trip: South Africa vs Scotland at St James’ Park. I must say, every single element of the RWC in England and Wales was meticulously organised. From the beautifully presented ticket, that when scanned with the relevant app displayed a stadium tour and view from my seat, among other things, to the super helpful marshals who lined the streets on game day to make sure no one got lost, I was terribly impressed with it all.
So I suppose the question is, can one game of rugby live up to all that anticipation – a whole year of planning and counting down to the big day? Arriving at St James’ Park before the game, I was literally shaking I was so excited. It also felt surreal that all the planning and waiting was finally over and I was at the game! A few people thought I was crazy to be going to the RWC alone – one colleague was even convinced I’d be kidnapped, Taken-style (flattering, but I think I’m past my trafficking prime) – but I knew it wouldn’t be an issue. It did turn out that one of my long-time friends ended up going to the game as well, so though we didn’t sit together, we could catch up before and after the match, but even if I’d been on my own, it wouldn’t have mattered. There is such a spirit of camaraderie at most rugby games, and especially at big matches like this one, that you never feel like you’re on your own. I even ended up having my photo taken with random Scottish and even French supporters – everyone just gets caught up in the excitement of the game and while there’s some jokey rivalry between opposing supporters, I’ve never really seen any nastiness at a rugby game, and certainly not at this one.
There was, of course, a bit of nervousness – Scotland was our toughest competition in the pool stages, and there was the small matter of that rather awkward loss to Japan in the opening game – but the nerves were soon dispelled by the amazing atmosphere in the stadium. From the poignancy of watching Madiba be posthumously inducted into the Rugby Hall of Fame, to the goosebump-inducing singing of the anthems; from the constant chanting of Scotland, Scotland, Scotland countered by Bokke, Bokke, Bokke, to the thrill of victory, every minute of that game was worth every single cent I paid for the entire trip. I was in rugby fangirl heaven.
Naturally, when I got back to South Africa, having left Newcastle the day after the match, I was suffering from a serious case of post-holiday blues. It was quite hard to fathom that this moment I had been anticipating for over a year was actually over. Luckily the RWC wasn’t quite done with me yet – there were still a few games to savour. And yes, I cried in a pub when we lost to New Zealand in the semi-final. Like actual, proper tears that had me adjourning to the bathroom to compose myself (and then had the barman pouring me quadruples at no extra charge). I know it seems silly to lots of people. Why would you get so emotionally involved in a game, after all?
Because as my lovely English friend, Liz (who cleverly married a Saffa), remarked, rugby is so much more than just a game to South Africans. We derive an incredible kind of unity from it – people who might have nothing else in common can stand next to each other in a pub or in a stadium, or even in an airport as they wait to welcome their heroes home, and feel like they are part of something special. Yes, there’s politics around it, and people arguing about transformation – is there enough focus on it (no, probably not), is there too much focus on it, blah blah blah – but I have found that the true lovers of the game and the most ardent supporters of the Springboks don’t care once it’s game day. There were lots of people who wrote the Springboks off because of all the turmoil, and because the team hasn’t had the most on-form year ever. No matter to the real fans. We just want our boys (whoever may be on the team) to go out there and play their hearts out. We are gobsmacked when they lose to Japan but we keep supporting them. We want to strangle them when they just keep kicking the ball away but we keep supporting them. And we cry when they play brilliantly but still lose to New Zealand and then still have to compete for a seemingly meaningless bronze medal but we keep supporting them. And we go to the airport and welcome them home, because actually, third place is nothing to sniff at, and if our hearts are hurting then theirs must feel even worse. Maybe I was more emotionally invested in this World Cup because I was there, and I felt that atmosphere, and I saw the players and their desire to make the country proud reflected in their eyes. All I know is that I have just under four years to start saving for Japan 2019….I reckon we’ve got that one in the bag!