What the recent World Rugby Sevens Series global championship reveals about national rugby cultures, particularly South Africa’s.
The United States and South Africa faced off in the quarterfinals of the Los Angeles leg (the “LA 7s”) of the World Rugby HSBC Sevens Series on March 1, 2020. In addition to the play on the pitch, the match revealed a great deal about the rugby cultures in both countries.
The mise en scene itself embodied America. Loud, brash, kinda drunk, fundamentally friendly yet periodically xenophobic, a bit ignorant, and geared toward spending $$$. And with $9 bottles of water, $20 plates of tacos, $15 cans of beer, and $70 hoodies, it was really easy to spend $$$; suffice it to say the exchange rate to South African Rands was horrifying. But Americans are also pretty good at hosting sports. Dignity Health Sports Park, a facility that usually hosts the LA Galaxy Major League Soccer team (and for the last three years the vagabond LA nee San Diego Chargers of the NFL) is quite a fine venue to watch a sporting event.
Fans from all over the world—mostly expats who have found their way to America and the sprawling expanses of Los Angeles—descended and supported their side. The crowd at the stadium was diverse because Fiji’s raucous fans arrived in droves, Kenya had a large fan base, and Samoans, Koreans, and other fans were in attendance as well. Among these were considerable numbers of South Africans, almost every one of whom I spoke to had moved to Southern California some time ago, and almost all of whom were white. The only black South Africans I saw manned a booth clearly geared toward drawing tourists to Mzansi. In South Africa, the game is diversifying (has always, in fact been diverse, but was developed separately, as it were, under apartheid) but the fan base in LA reminded one that South Africa is deeply stratified by race but also by class. I did not want to impose on those I spoke to casually, but of every South African I met, I wanted to ask: When did you move to the US?
The South Africans I did ask about their arrival in the US had a range of answers, but if they looked over the age of 40 they almost universally told me they had been here for some version of “a bit more than twenty-five years.” There is a reason why white South Africans were leaving South Africa about twenty-five years ago, and those are not always virtuous reasons. Among the younger ones, and there were a lot, answers varied—some came across with their parents when they were young, a few were here for work or school, and some were here “on holiday.”
The fans festooned in the red, white, and blue of the United States too were overwhelmingly white. This is not surprising, as rugby in the United States is a middle class sport played (when played at all, that is) overwhelmingly by suburban kids who may not play football or basketball.
On the pitch the two sides emphasized different things. For South Africa, the Blitzboks have been formidable internationally, winning three World Series titles (including two in a row in 2016-17 and 2017-18) and finishing runners-up seven times. The US has a sole 2nd place finish, which they accomplished in 2018-19. Head- to-head, the two sides have met 57 times in sevens. The Blitzboks have won 50 of those meetings.
Nonetheless, for the Americans, because they have had a modicum of success, sevens rugby is seen as a priority, a way the US can compete in a way that they never really have, despite some clear steps forward in recent years, in the traditional 15-player game of rugby union. The inclusion of sevens rugby in the Olympics further validates the emphasis on the sport in American rugby circles.
For South Africa, sevens is growing in line with the HSBC Sevens Series, but it is still just a sideshow to the Springboks and Super Rugby and Currie Cup and all of the other iterations of the international union game in which South Africa is one of the best. Sevens in South Africa is still a developmental game, a game for guys who may not be quite up to the demands of union, or of guys better suited to the sevens series than to, say, Super Rugby, which overlaps with the back half of the Sevens Series. Put another way, few South African players who could star in Super Rugby or in one of Europe’s top leagues would necessarily choose to remain contracted to the Blitzboks. This is not to say that there are not exceptions. But generally speaking, Blitzboks graduate to professional fifteens if they can do so. None of this is to denigrate sevens rugby or its players—sevens is a different game from union, far more wide open, far faster. Half of any given union team would have no position in sevens, and many of the aspects that are central to union—most notably the importance of set pieces—are just not as significant in the shorter game. They are variations of the same sport, to be sure, but they are not the same sport, and skill in one does not necessarily translate to comparable mastery of the other.
On the pitch the USA-Blitzbok match was a good one, by far the closest of the four quarterfinal matches. The US stormed out to a 10-0 lead on two Carlin Isles tries but the Blitzboks got one back when Ryan Oosthuizen crossed after snagging a pass out of the air that was not intended for him. Confirmation of the try required a consultation with the TMO, and to be honest it really did look like he lost possession before grounding the ball, but it held up on replay. The score-line read 10-5 at the half, as both teams missed their conversions, a fact that would especially haunt the Americans when the final hooter blew. The teams battled in the second half, with time beginning to favor the US, but in the last minute South Africa won possession and JC Pretorius scored a last-minute try. Selvyn Davids converted, and the US could not get anything going before South Africa forced a turnover, kicked into touch, and set itself up for a semifinal match against current season log leaders and historic South African rugby foes New Zealand. The United States ended up defeating Ireland for a respectable 5th place finish overall.
In the semis against the All Black 7s (which the Blitzboks won handily in a 17-0 whitewash over their ancient rivals) a loud “Bokke” chant broke out, and my fan’s ambivalence about South African rugby re-emerged. There is, I must say, nothing wrong with Afrikaans, the language of the Boers, of Afrikaner nationalists, sure, but also the language of coloured South Africans and one of South Africa’s eleven official languages in the post-apartheid era. But at the same time Afrikaans chants at rugby matches since 1992 have a long and sometimes ugly history that ties into not only the fraught politics of language, but also to a fetishization of the old apartheid flag (none of which, it must be said, were on display in Los Angeles) and of the Springbok logo, which seems redolent of recidivist white nationalism. Perhaps this is not fair, of course—sometimes a “Bokke” chant is just a “Bokke” chant—and it may speak to my own bigotry. But rampant Afrikaner pride at rugby matches always makes me uneasy and there are historically legitimate reasons for this even if for this mass of expats the chants were probably completely anodyne (and I doubt that the group acted with one motivation in any case).
But there was always the possibility of a tell, a sign that gave away the true intention. For at the World Rugby Sevens Series, they only play national anthems for the final match, the Cup Championship. And so when South Africa made the finals and they played “Nkosi Sikilele Africa,” I listened. And sure enough the tell came clear—anyone who has been to a Springbok match knows what I am talking about—the song switches to Afrikaans and suddenly white fans find their voice, singing the remnants of the old national anthem “Die Stem” full-throatily. And it isn’t 1995 anymore—if a South African does not know all of the lyrics to the full national anthem by now, they don’t want to. The Afrikaans lyrics did not ring as loudly as the “Bokke” chants (so we cannot draw a straight line conclusion between what one but not the other means), but they rang through loudly enough.
The Blitzboks got blitzed in the first half of the finals against a rampant Fiji squad that has not been quite as formidable this year as in years past but that all weekend showed why they might be the most dangerous team in sevens rugby even as they entered the weekend in an uncharacteristic 5th place. It was 19-7 at the half, but that score-line flattered to deceive the Lightning Boks, who needed a try after the clock had expired just to get on the board. But the Blitzboks fought like hell in the second half and another try after the hooter (by Bronco du Preez) followed by a long conversion at a tough angle by Selvyn Davids and the championship game went to sudden death. In that extra time the Boks took advantage early and when Sakoyisa Makata went over for the winning try, the Blitzboks were the tournament champions and crawled closer to leaders New Zealand on the series table.
Victory assured, the Saffies in the crowd got to sing “Ole,” and chant “Bokke,” and I suppose sing Die Stem to their hearts content while wrapped in the new South African flag. Being the fan of a champion absolves a lot of sins. It also abnegates any need for self-reflection.