Following the end of Apartheid in 1994, the Springboks were able to compete in a World Cup on home soil in 1995 and eventually won the tournament, concluding with an iconic image of Nelson Mandela and captain Francois Pienaar embracing after the match. Though this one moment was on the surface superficial, it was a radical gesture of racial reconciliation that reverberated around the world.
Ever since, rugby has become a less segregated sport in South African society, and the relevant sporting authorities have strived to make it a game for all South Africans. A quota system is also in place at youth levels to ensure that all have an equal chance of becoming a part of the national team one day. A country with such a controversial and divisive recent history, it’s perhaps understandable that South Africa looks to the game of rugby for a sense of unity and national identity.
The tradition and sense of importance attached to rugby is slightly in contrast with the attitudes towards the game in the UK. Before the recent World Cup in England, over 40% of the UK wasn’t aware that it was even about to take place. So why are there such differing levels of interest? Well, aside from the social and political implications attached to the game of rugby in South Africa, it’s a sport that has a lot of competition in the UK. Football is overwhelmingly the most popular sport in much of Europe, and the UK is no different. As well as being home of the most watched sporting league in the world, the Premier League, the UK’s obsession with football runs deep and is the result of many generations of passionate fans.
Rugby is also, by nature, a more complicated game to learn and therefore enjoy. Football is pretty self-explanatory, and extremely low maintenance in terms of equipment needed. This means that children of a young age are far more likely to look to football for sporting fun. It tends to be in secondary school that UK children are first exposed to rugby and its rules. While this a young enough age to learn and play the game, it may be too late to ignite the true passion required to get its popularity on a level with South Africa.
There is one attitude toward rugby that the UK and South Africa have in common though. This is that, despite everyone’s best efforts, rugby continues to be seen as a game for the higher classes, a sport of the privileged. Many UK state schools focus exclusively on football, whether for cost or simplicity, and this only serves to perpetuate the divide.
But all of this is not to say that rugby isn’t loved in England. Of course it is. It’s just a very different kind of love. The sport, aside from a minority of dedicated supporters who follow UK-based clubs, is mostly picked up during international tournaments such as the recent world cup. And there’s nothing really wrong with that, is there?