Rugby – a game-changer

South Africa might have lost the bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup, but not all is lost…

Rugby is a sport in which we, as a country, have achieved the highest accolades. We hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa a year after our first democratic elections and the hype of winning it was a huge unifier of the diverse racial groups of the new South Africa. It brought us all closer as a nation and is still a reminder of the possibilities that can be achieved by this sport.

Our former president Nelson Mandela, at the inaugural Laureus Sport Awards in Monaco in the year 2000, said, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”

Very profound words spoken at the time but these five sentences now speak to the strategic direction and the vision of the South African Rugby Union (SARU), which is, “To be the leading Rugby Nation inspiring all South Africans”. SARU has great plans to promote the sport of rugby and to include everyone in the benefit of participating in the sport.

These plans include wheelchair rugby, as the South Africa Wheelchair Rugby (SAWCR) is an associate member of SARU.

Recently, South Africa lost the bid to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023, when the International Rugby Board (IRB) awarded this privilege to France. The decision came as a blow to a large portion of the population. However, there are also many people who feel that it would have been inappropriate to host this event, as we have other more pressing and immediate issues to focus on.

Fair enough: we are all entitled to our opinions. There are pros and cons to the hosting of big sporting events such as the Olympics and Rugby or Soccer World Cups. (Some readers will recall that I wrote about some of the benefits when writing about the Commonwealth Games in Upfront in March-April 2015.)

There are lucrative benefits such as much-needed revenue, increased tourism numbers, improved infrastructure as well as sport-specific benefits, like the opportunity to host a concurrent International Wheelchair Rugby competition, which too was lost when we lost the bid.

This might seem insignificant in the light of the many serious challenges, such as unemployment, poverty and education, facing the country, but sport plays an important part in addressing all these matters.

But all is not lost. We might not be the host country for the 2023 Rugby World Cup but we can still prepare for and participate in it. We are a resilient nation; although the Springboks did not compete in the first two World Cups in 1987 and 1991 because of anti-apartheid sporting boycotts, we have competed in all the post-apartheid world cups.

The team made its World Cup debut in 1995, when the newly democratic South Africa hosted the tournament. The Springboks defeated the All Blacks 15–12 in the final, which is now remembered as one of the greatest moments in South Africa’s sporting history, and a watershed moment in the post-apartheid nation-building process.

South Africa regained their title as champions 12 years later when they defeated England 15–6 in the 2007 final. As a result of the 2007 World Cup tournament the Springboks were promoted to first place in the IRB World Rankings, a position they held until July the following year when New Zealand regained the top spot. They were named 2008 World Team of the Year at the very same Laureus World Sports Awards where Madiba had made that speech, eight years prior.

But for the team to regain that form will take serious introspection, transformation and hard work to rebuild our team to the form it enjoyed 10 years ago – a big ask, but not impossible. At least we now have the opportunity to start the rebuilding process, with the collaboration between SARU and SAWCR enabling us to combine our efforts to achieve positive results.

By the time you read this, the first Wheelchair Rugby National Championship Tournament, now sanctioned by SARU and hosted by Western Province Rugby Union, should have taken place at the Belhar Indoor Sport Centre in Cape Town (December 1 and 2). Teams from the Northwest Province, Gauteng and the Free State together with the host Western Province were due to participate. In a future issue, I shall report back on the event, which was a wonderful opportunity for all to show support to the athletes as proud South Africans enjoying one of the major sport codes of our country. Let us use rugby as a vehicle to take us forward as a nation.

 


Raven Benny is the chairperson of QASA. He has been a C5, 6 and 7 quadriplegic since 2000. He is married with five children, is mad about wheelchair rugby and represented South Africa in 2003 and 2005. He also plays for Maties. email: rbenny@pgwc.gov.za

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