Rugby: Sportsmen in Action

The referee watching closely as the South African players (in green jerseys) try to get hold of the ball.
South Africa (in green jerseys) playing the United States.
A springbok duel in the Kalahari desert.
Three South African players chasing after the Argentine player who has the ball.

The history of rugby in South Africa, to a large extent, is one of Afrikaans-speaking whites playing the game. In recent years, however, its popularity has become more ethnically spread, and South Africans across the board now play the sport. The country as a whole, too, takes pride in its national rugby teams, which have won multiple World Cups, and join a large group of other English-speaking countries in putting rugby high on their list of most popular sports.

Comparisons with American football

Although, as mentioned, rugby is popular in parts of the English-speaking world, many people around the rest of the world have little knowledge of rugby and its rules. For this reason, it is relevant to explain the rules, and it may be helpful to do so by making comparisons with American football, since the similarities between the two sports are striking. In both sports, for example, players line up in pre-determined formations, tackle opponents to stop them, and score by either carrying the ball into the end zone or kicking it over a crossbar. Players’ running speed, moreover, is of utmost importance in both games, and rugby matches, like American football matches, are typically played outdoors on grass.

Some of the differences that exist between the two sports include the fact that, in rugby, with respect to throwing the ball, the ball can only be passed sideways or backwards, not forward like in American football. Rugby players, furthermore, tend to use very little protection, something that is contrary to American football, where players wear both helmets and shoulder pads. A third difference is that when a rugby player in control of the ball is tackled to the ground, the ball is not dead, as is the case in American football. Instead, the rugby player must let go off the ball and when the ball is loose, somebody else picks it up and the game continues. This makes for long sequences of play without interruption.

Keep quiet and play

During the long sequences of uninterrupted rugby play, you often see big burly men and women without pads tackle each other hard, but you seldom see complaints or exaggerated gesticulations. The reason for this is that participants simply accept that rugby is a physical sport and that it will hurt. As a consequence, it rarely happens that players protest or insult referees, but when it happens, referees might say something like: “Your behavior is intolerable. Remember, this is not soccer!”

A political perspective

Beyond the topic of player conduct and verbal reprimands, South African rugby, in a sense, is highly political. This, in part, has to do with a post-apartheid government decision that introduced ethnic quotas for players on the national teams. The policy, quite controversially, mandates that players who are objectively better than other players be left out of the teams if their racial or ethnic quotas are already filled. This, in effect, discriminates players based on skin color and has prompted opponents of the policy to call for color-blindness in the selection processes.

Proponents of the quota system, on the other hand, argue that temporary affirmative action is a possible way to redress imbalances created during the apartheid era. This era, they hold, was a time when whites had better opportunities to excel in sports than non-whites and therefore got unjustifiably ahead.

As a result of the quotas, today, the Springboks boast a multiracial roster compared to the almost exclusively white line up it saw before.