Rugby union in South Africa

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Rugby union in South Africa
Percy Montgomery against Samoa.jpg
Springbok Percy Montgomery weaves his way towards the try-line against Samoa at the 2007 Rugby World Cup
CountrySouth Africa
Governing body South African Rugby Union
National team(s) South Africa
Nickname(s)Springboks, Boks, Bokke, Amabokoboko
First played1862, Cape Town
Registered players651,146 (total)
121,663 (adult)
204,119 (teen)
325,364 (pre-teen) [1]
Club competitions
International competitions

Rugby union in South Africa is a very popular team sport, along with cricket and football, and is widely played all over the country. The national team is among the strongest in the world and has been ranked in the top seven of the World Rugby Rankings since its inception in 2003. [2] The country hosted and won the 1995 Rugby World Cup, [3] and won again in 2007 [4] and 2019.


As with much else in South Africa, the organisation and playing of rugby has been entangled with politics, and racial politics in particular. [5]


When Canon George Ogilvie became headmaster of Diocesan College in Cape Town in 1861, he introduced the game of Winchester College football. This version of football, which included handling of the ball, is seen as the beginnings of rugby in South Africa. [6] [7] [8] Soon, the young gentlemen of Cape Town joined in and the first match in South Africa took place between the "Officers of the Army" and the "Gentlemen of the Civil Service" at Green Point in Cape Town on 23 August 1862 and ended as a 0–0 draw. The local press reported a series of football matches between scratch sides "Town v Suburbs" or "Home v Colonial-born".

Around 1875, rugby began to be played in the Cape colony; the same year the first rugby (as opposed to Winchester football) club, Hamilton, was formed in Sea Point, Cape Town. [9] Former England international William Henry Milton arrived in Cape Town in 1878. He joined the Villagers club and started playing and preaching rugby. By the end of that year Cape Town had all but abandoned the Winchester game in favour of rugby. [8] British colonists helped spread the game through the Eastern Cape, Natal and along the gold and diamond routes to Kimberley and Johannesburg. British troops would also play a key role in spreading the game throughout the country.

Rugby union was introduced to South Africa by British colonists, including miners from rugby union stronghold Cornwall , and began to be played in the Cape colony around 1875. In 1883, the Stellenbosch club was formed in the predominantly Boer farming district outside Cape Town and rugby was enthusiastically adopted by the young Boer farmers. As British and Boer migrated to the interior they helped spread the game from the Cape colony through the Eastern Cape, and Natal, and along the gold and diamond routes to Kimberley and Johannesburg.

The game was strong enough in the Western Cape for the Western Province Rugby Football Union to be formed that same year; Griqualand West followed in 1886; Eastern Province in 1888; Transvaal in 1889 and in 1889 the South African Rugby Board was founded. Kimberley was the founding city of the South Africa Rugby Football Board in 1889.

In 1889 the first nationwide tournament was held at Kimberley, with the Western Province (rugby team) prevailing over Griqualand West, Eastern Province and Transvaal.

British Isles v Cape Colony, the first match of the British Isles tour of South Africa in 1891 England-v-Cape-Colony-1891.jpg
British Isles v Cape Colony, the first match of the British Isles tour of South Africa in 1891

The first-ever tour of the British Isles by a team from Southern Africa (drawing on players from the then independent republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and the British colonies of the Cape and Natal) took place in 1891, with the trip financially underwritten by (the British arch imperialist) Cecil Rhodes of the Cape and (the resolutely Boer) President Kruger of the Transvaal Republic. Seven years later Britain was at war with the Boer republics, and during the Boer war British troops would play a key role in entrenching the game throughout the country, and games amongst the Boer population in prisoner of war camps popularised the game further.

The Pretoria RFC team of 1905 Pretoria rfc 1905.jpg
The Pretoria RFC team of 1905

From the early years the game had been enthusiastically and passionately adopted by coloured and black populations in the Cape colony, and the Eastern Cape in particular, but rugby organisation (under the South Africa Coloured Rugby Board formed in 1896) and teams were kept segregated with discrimination against black and coloured players and little government funding.

Even before the 1948 elections in South Africa in which the apartheid government came to power and legislated systematically along racial lines, foreign sporting teams going to South Africa had felt it necessary to exclude non-white players. New Zealand rugby teams in particular had done this, and the exclusion of George Nēpia and Jimmy Mill from the 1928 All Blacks tour, and the dropping of "Ranji" Wilson from the New Zealand Army team nine years before that, had attracted little comment at the time.

From 1960, international criticism of apartheid in particular grew in the wake of "The Wind of Change" speech by the British Prime Minister, Macmillan, and the Sharpeville massacre near Johannesburg in South Africa. From then onward, the Springboks, perceived as prominent representatives of apartheid South Africa, were increasingly isolated internationally.

Coming shortly after the Soweto riots as it did, the 1976 All Blacks tour of South Africa attracted international condemnation and 28 countries boycotted the 1976 Summer Olympics in protest. The next year, in 1977, the Commonwealth signed the Gleneagles Agreement, which discouraged any sporting contact with South Africa. A planned 1979 Springbok tour of France was stopped by the French government, which announced that it was inappropriate for South African teams to tour France, and after the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand went ahead in defiance of the Gleneagles Agreement, South Africa was banned by the International Rugby Board from international competition until such time as apartheid ended.

From 1990 to 1994 the legal apparatus of apartheid was abolished, and in 1992 the Springboks were readmitted to international rugby. On 23 March 1992 the non-racial South African Rugby Union and the South African Rugby Board were merged to form the South African Rugby Football Union. The unified body changed its name in 2005 to the current South African Rugby Union.

SA Rugby celebrated 100 years of test rugby in 2006 and unveiled a new logo at a function at ABSA Stadium in Durban. Celebrations continued later in the year, with two tests against England at Twickenham.


According to World Rugby, South Africa has 434,219 registered players broken down into: 157,980 pre-teen males; 121,879 teen males; 143,722 senior males (total male players 423,581); 1,653 pre-teen females; 5,504 teen females; 3,481 senior females (total female players 10,638).

There are 4,074 referees.


From 1990 to 1991 the legal apparatus of apartheid was abolished, and in 1992 the Springboks were readmitted to international rugby. The history of discrimination and the high-profile association of rugby union with the apartheid era could not, however, be dismissed at a stroke of a pen and the issue of race remains very sensitive post-apartheid in South African rugby. Racial classification has become an important part of the attempt to open up the sport and provide opportunities for the previously disadvantaged. Various rugby competitions are now required to operate racial quotas whereby a specified number of each team must be non-white. The Sport and Recreation Amendment Bill was tabled in Parliament in 2007 and provided that sports federations would be compelled to supply government with a racial demographic breakdown of their membership in order to qualify for state funding.

Quotas have not however officially been applied to the national Springbok team, but there has been increasing frustration at the lack of elite black players resulting in growing political pressure. A number of MPs of the African National Congress (the governing party), including the influential Parliamentary Sports Committee chairman Butana Khompela, have called for powers for the government to influence the selection of national teams. In July 2006, Springbok coach Jake White told the press he had been unable to pick certain white players for his squad "because of transformation" – a reference to the ANC government's policies of requiring racial selection in attempting to redress the racial imbalances in national sport. Prior to the 2007 World Cup, Butana Komphela gave an interview in which he suggested that passports would be confiscated if the Springbok team was not "representative" i.e. did not have a racial make up representative of the demographics of South Africa (the white part of the South African population amounts to approximately 8% (4 million) of the national population but dominated the 2007 World Cup winning squad).

Minister of Sport Makhenkesi Stofile has been a vocal critic of the Springboks lack of "representivity" and the slow rate of "transformation", and was widely expected to be the driving force behind the campaign to appoint a black coach for the 2008 season who would be expected to give preference to black players. Jake White's contract as the coach of the Springboks expired at the end of December 2007.

The presence of only two coloured players in the winning team's starting line-up, 13 years after the end of white minority rule, has led to a new bout of soul-searching about how to ensure the progress of more black players. However, the debate may however be moving away from quotas and transformation. The failure to develop sport at school level is one of the country's biggest mistakes, President Thabo Mbeki said in Pretoria where he was handed the Webb Ellis Cup by the Springboks following their World Cup victory against England. "We don't put sufficient development in sports and we haven't committed resources needed and this is one of our biggest mistakes". He said development needed to be built from below. Sports and Recreation Minister Makhenkesi Stofile recently emphasised the development of talent, ruled out racial quotas for national teams pointing out that this resulted merely in window dressing for international consumption, as a failed experiment in South African rugby showed a few years ago.

However the issue remains politically fraught. Although a survey by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) has showed that only a slim majority of the population favoured racial quotas in national sports teams, there were still strong racial disparities in the level of support for quotas. The survey found that black South Africans were more than four times as supportive of quotas compared to the white population.

Governing body

From 1990 to 1991 the legal apparatus of apartheid was abolished, and in 1992 the Springboks were readmitted to international rugby. On 23 March 1992 the non-racial South African Rugby Union and the South African Rugby Board (the government-approved white-only governing body) were merged to form the South African Rugby Football Union. The unified body changed its name in 2005 to the current South African Rugby Union.

National team

The national team are known as the Springboks. The jersey is a dark myrtle green with a gold collar and a logo of a leaping springbuck and a protea.

The "Springbok" nickname and logo dates from the 1906/7 tour of Britain. The logo was not restricted to the white team alone, the first coloured national team used the springbok in 1939 and the first black team in 1950.

National sevens team

South Africa also occupies an important place in the sevens version of the sport. The country hosts one of the 10 events in the annual Sevens World Series. From 2001 through 2010, it was held at Outeniqua Park in George, a community along the Garden Route in the Western Cape. Starting in 2011, the tournament moved to the Eastern Cape and the much larger Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, and moved again in 2015 to Cape Town and Cape Town Stadium. The Cape Town Sevens has since become one of the biggest annual events on the South African sporting calendar, attracting numerous local and international visitors over the course of the weekend on which it is held. South Africa's national team, known as Springbok Sevens, and also nicknamed "Blitzbokke", have become one of the sport's top national sides, as evidenced by their victory in the 2008–09 IRB Sevens World Series and recently in both 2016-2017 and 2017-18. Cape Town is schedule to host the 2022 Rugby World Cup Sevens.

Domestic competitions

Super Rugby

Super Rugby is an international provincial competition featuring teams from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. The competition, governed by SANZAAR, was formed in 1996 as Super 12 after the game turned professional, and became Super 14 in 2006 with the addition of the new franchises Western Force in Australia and Cheetahs in South Africa. With the addition in 2011 of the Melbourne Rebels, a new Australian franchise, the competition rebranded itself as Super Rugby. It now features five teams from each of the three countries. In 2016, Super Rugby will add three new teams. The Kings, representing the Eastern Cape, will receive a permanent place in the competition, and new teams based in Argentina and Japan will also join, bringing the competition to 18 teams.

In the (old) Super 12 and Super 14 format, each team played each other team once in a round robin followed by a knockout finals series featuring the top four finishers. Starting in 2011, the teams were divided into Australian, New Zealand, and South African conferences; each team playing the other teams in its conference, home and away, and four teams from each of the other conferences once. The finals format also changed dramatically. The winner of each conference receives a finals berth, with the top two conference winners earning a first-round bye. The other conference winner is joined in the first round by the three non-conference winners with the best overall records without regard to affiliation. These four teams are then paired into knockout matches, with the winners advancing to a semi-final against one of the top two teams. The semi-final winners then advance to the final, hosted by the top surviving seed.

When the competition expands in 2016, it will reorganise into two regional groups, each with two conferences. The Australasian Group will consist of all Australian and New Zealand teams, split into Australian and New Zealand Conferences. The African Group will consist of the six South African teams, plus the Argentine and Japanese teams, and in turn will be divided into Africa 1 and Africa 2 Conferences. The finals series will expand to eight teams in a pure knockout format. The top team from each conference will automatically qualify for the finals series and receive the top four seeds, with three additional Australasian teams and one extra team from the African Group qualifying based on table points during the regular season. As in the current format, each finals match will be hosted by the higher seed.

The predecessor to professional Super Rugby was the Super 10, a tournament featuring ten teams from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Tonga and Western Samoa, which ran for three years from 1993 to 1995.

The South African Super Rugby teams are as follows:

The Super 10 was won in 1993 by Transvaal but the Super Rugby competition was not won by a South African team until 2007, when South Africa provided the two finalists, the Bulls and the Sharks. The Bulls scored a last-second win over the Sharks in the final. The Bulls went on to win the last two titles under the Super 14 format, handing the Chiefs of New Zealand a record 61–17 thrashing in the 2009 final and defeating the Stormers in the 2010 final.

United Rugby Championship

Following a reorganisation of Super Rugby after its 2017 season, two of South Africa's six Super Rugby franchises, the Cheetahs and Southern Kings, were axed. During the months preceding the announcement of Super Rugby contraction, the SARU had entered into discussions with Celtic Rugby Limited, the company that operates the European competition then known as Pro12, regarding the potential addition of the two axed Super Rugby sides to the league. Shortly before the league began its 2017–18 season, the Cheetahs and Kings were immediately admitted into the competition, which renamed itself Pro14 to reflect its new number of teams, and later expanded and renamed the United Rugby Championship. The South African teams now play alongside four each from Ireland and Wales, and two each from Italy and Scotland.

The South African United Rugby Championship teams include:

Currie Cup

The Currie Cup tournament has been the premier domestic rugby union in South Africa since its first edition in 1892. Since then, the number of teams participating in the competition varied in different seasons, with the Currie Cup trophy being awarded to the champions of the top tier. Other trophies, such as the Percy Frames Trophy, the W.V. Simkins Trophy and the South African Cup (currently awarded to the winners of the First Division), were also on offer.

Other competitions

Between 1983 and 1994, teams also competed in a knockout cup competition called the Lion Cup. There was no competition in 1995, as South African rugby adjusted to the advent of professional rugby, but in 1996, a new competition – the Bankfin Nite Series – was launched. That lasted for two seasons before being replaced by the Vodacom Cup. The Vodacom Cup was held between 1998 and 2015 and included teams from Argentina, Namibia, Kenya and the South African Limpopo province in addition to the fourteen South African provincial sides. The Vodacom Cup was discontinued in 2015 and replaced for 2016 with a one-off expanded Currie Cup before its permanent replacement, the Rugby Challenge, launched in 2017. The Challenge now includes only South African sides, plus the Namibian team that had sporadically featured in the Vodacom Cup.

Since 2008, the Varsity Cup is an annual tournament held between the top university club sides in South Africa. In 2011, a second tier known as the Varsity Shield was added to the schedule.

Non-university club sides can also compete for national honours; they compete in the annual Gold Cup competition, which was launched in 2013. It was preceded by a similar competition called the National Club Championships.

There are also several youth competitions; all the provincial sides compete annually in the Under-21 and Under-19 Provincial Championships. The premier schools competition is known as the Craven Week (there are two editions of this competition – an Under-18 competition for high schools and an Under-13 competition for primary schools), and the other national youth weeks are the Under-18 Academy Week, the Under-16 Grant Khomo Week and the Under-18 LSEN Week for Learners with Special Educational Needs.

International competitions

Rugby World Cup

South Africa did not take part in the first two World Cups, held in 1987 and 1991, as they were still under an international boycott due to apartheid. South Africa however did play an important role in the first World Cup; despite knowing that they would not be able to participate, the delegates voted in favor and provided the swing vote for the World Cup.[ citation needed ]

Since then South Africa have won the World Cup three times, in 1995 in their first appearance when they also hosted the event, and again in 2007 and 2019. The 1995 tournament concluded with then President Nelson Mandela (at the time described as the world's most famous former political prisoner), wearing a Springbok jersey and matching baseball cap, presenting the trophy to the South Africa's captain François Pienaar (a young Afrikaner). Given the political history of South Africa, the moment is seen as one of the most emotional in the sport's history and symbolic of reconciliation and the birth of a new, free South Africa as a "rainbow nation".

In 2007 the Springboks repeated their 1995 feat winning the 2007 World Cup by defeating England at Stade de France. In the 2011 World Cup, the Boks only managed to reach the quarter final stage where they were beaten by Australia.

South Africa won the Rugby World Cup for a third time in 2019, once again defeating England, 32–12 in the final in Yokohama. Upon winning for a third time, they have tied New Zealand for the most Rugby World Cup wins.

Tri Nations and The Rugby Championship

The Tri Nations was an annual competition involving New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. Previously this involved each country playing one home and one away game against both other countries. From 2006 the competition was expanded with each nation playing both the other nations three times (except in Rugby World Cup years). Since Argentina's strong performances in the 2007 World Cup a number of commentators believed they should join the Tri-Nations. [10] This was firstly proposed for the 2008 tournament, [11] then for 2010, [12] but eventually this prospect came much closer to reality after the 2009 Tri Nations tournament, when SANZAR (South Africa, New Zealand and Australian Rugby) extended an official invitation to the Unión Argentina de Rugby (UAR), to join a new revised Four Nations tournament in 2012. This long-anticipated move was generally met with great approval from all parties involved. [13] [14] The invitation was however subject to certain conditions, like the guaranteed availability of the top Puma players, most of whom play highly paid professional club rugby in Europe at present.

With Argentina's entry ultimately confirmed, the Tri Nations was renamed The Rugby Championship. The involvement of the Pumas caused the competition to revert to a pure home-and-away series.

The Freedom Cup (against New Zealand) and the Mandela Challenge Plate (against Australia) are competed for as part of The Rugby Championship.

Africa Cup

The Africa Cup is an annual competition involving ten African nations. South Africa sent its top amateurs to this competition up until 2007.

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Further reading