The team has been playing International Rugby since 30 July 1891, when they played their first Test match against a British Isles touring team.
Although South Africa was instrumental in the creation of the Rugby World Cup competition, the Springboks did not compete in the first two World Cups in 1987 and 1991 because of anti-apartheid sporting boycotts of South Africa. 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 Laureus World Sports Awards.
First internationals: 1891–1913
The first British Isles tour took place in 1891. These were the first representative games played by South African sides. The tourists won all twenty matches they played, conceding only one point. The British Isles’ success continued on their tour of 1896, winning three out of four tests against South Africa. South Africa’s play improved markedly from 1891, and their first test win in the final game was a pointer to the future. In 1903 the British Isles lost a series for the first time in South Africa, drawing the opening two tests before losing the last 8–0. Rugby was given a huge boost by the early Lions tours, which created great interest in the South African press. South Africa would not lose another series—home or away—until 1956.
The first South African team to tour the British Isles and France occurred during 1906–07. The team played tests against all four Home Nations. England managed a draw, but Scotland was the only one of the Home unions to gain a victory. The trip instilled a sense of national pride among South Africans. The South Africans played an unofficial match against a ‘France’ team while the official French team were in England; the Springboks won 55–6. It was during this tour that the nickname Springboks was first used.
The 1910 British Isles tour of South Africa was the first to include representatives from all four Home unions. The tourists won just one of their three tests.
The Boks’ second European tour took place in 1912–13. They beat the four Home nations to earn their first Grand Slam, and also defeated France.
Anti-apartheid protests: 1960s–1970s
In 1960, international criticism of apartheid grew in the wake of The Wind of Change speech and the Sharpeville massacre. The Springboks increasingly became the target of international protest. The All Blacks toured South Africa in 1960, despite a 150,000 signature petition opposing it. The Springboks avenged their 1956 series defeat by winning the four-match test series 2–1 with one draw. Later that same year the Springboks toured Europe, and they defeated all four Home unions for their fourth Grand Slam.
The 1962 British Lions tour to South Africa lost all three tests. In 1963 the touring Wallabies beat the Springboks in consecutive tests, the first team to do so since the 1896 British team. In 1964, in Wales’first overseas tour they played one test match against South Africa, losing 24–3, their biggest defeat in 40 years.
South Africa had a poor year in 1965, losing matches in a tour of Ireland and Scotland, and in a tour of Australia and New Zealand.
The planned 1967 tour by the All Blacks was cancelled by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union after the South African government refused to allow Maori players. In 1968 the Lions toured and lost three Tests and drew one.
Next year in the 1969–70 Springbok tour to Britain and Ireland the Springboks lost test matches against England and Scotland, and drew against Ireland. Throughout the tour however, large anti-apartheid demonstrations meant that several matches had to be played behind barbed wire fences.
In 1970 the All Blacks toured South Africa once again—after the South African government agreed to treat Maoris in the team and Maori spectators as ‘honorary whites’. The Springboks won the test series 3–1.
In the Springbok tour of Australia in 1971, the Springboks won all three tests. As in Britain three years before, however, massive anti-apartheid demonstrations greeted the team, and they had to be transported by the Royal Australian Air Force after the trade unions refused to service planes or trains transporting them. A planned tour of New Zealand for 1973 was blocked by New Zealand Prime Minister Norman Kirk on the grounds of public safety.
The Lions team that toured South Africa in 1974 triumphed 3–0 (with one drawn) in the test series. A key feature was the Lions’ infamous ’99 call’. Lions management had decided that the Springboks dominated their opponents with physical aggression, so decided “to get their retaliation in first”. At the call of ’99’ each Lions player would attack their nearest rival player. The “battle of Boet Erasmus Stadium” was one of the most violent matches in rugby history.
Sporting isolation: 1970s–1980s
The 1976 All Blacks tour of South Africa went ahead, and the Springboks won by three Tests to one, but coming shortly after the Soweto riots the tour attracted international condemnation. Twenty eight countries boycotted the 1976 Summer Olympics in protest, and in 1977 the Gleneagles Agreement discouraged any Commonwealth sporting contact with South Africa. In response to the growing pressure, the segregated South African rugby unions merged in 1977. A planned 1979 Springbok tour of France was blocked by the French government.
The Lions toured South Africa in 1980, losing the first three tests before winning the last one.
The 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand went ahead in defiance of the Gleneagles Agreement. South Africa lost the series 2–1. The tour and the massive civil disruption in New Zealand had ramifications far beyond rugby. In 1981, Errol Tobias became the first non-white South African to represent his country when he took the field against Ireland. South Africa sought to counteract its sporting isolation by inviting the South American Jaguars to tour. The team contained mainly Argentinian players. Eight matches were played between the two teams in the early 1980s—all awarded Test status. In 1984, England toured losing both test matches; of the players selected, only Ralph Knibbs of Bristol refused to tour for political reasons.
Due to the isolation from apartheid, from 1985 to 1991, South Africa did not play a single test match against an established country, although South Africa did play some matches against makeshift teams. In 1985, a planned All Black tour of South Africa was stopped by the New Zealand High Court. A rebel tour took place the next year by a team known as the Cavaliers, which consisted of all but two of the original squad.The Springboks won the series 3–1. In 1989, a World XV sanctioned by the International Rugby Board went on a mini-tour of South Africa; all traditional rugby nations bar New Zealand supplied players to the team. South Africa was not permitted by the International Rugby Board to compete in the inaugural 1987 Rugby World Cup, nor in the following 1991 Rugby World Cup.
Rainbow nation and 1995 World Cup
Apartheid was abolished during 1990–91, and the Springboks were readmitted to international rugby in 1992. They struggled to return to their pre-isolation standards in their first games after readmission. During the1992 All Blacks tour, the first to South Africa since 1976, the Springboks were defeated 27–24 by New Zealand, and suffered a 26–3 loss to Australia the following month.
South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup, with a surge of support for the Springboks among the white and black communities behind the slogan “one team, one country.” This was the first major international sports event to be held in the Rainbow Nation. By the time they hosted the 1995 World Cup, the Springboks, coached by Kitch Christie, were seeded ninth. They won their pool by defeating Australia,Romania, and Canada. Wins in the quarterfinal against Western Samoa (42–14) and in the semifinal against France (19–15) sent the Springboks to the final. South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final against the All Blacks 15–12 in extra-time. President Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springbok shirt, presented the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar, a white Afrikaner. The gesture was widely seen as a major step towards the reconciliation of white and black South Africans.
A series of crises followed in 1995 through 1997. Christie resigned in 1996 due to leukaemia. South Africa struggled in the new Tri-Nations competition, the All Blacks won a test series in South Africa for the first time in 1996, and the Lions won their 1997 South African tour test series two games to one. Coach Andre Markgraaff was fired in 1997 over a racial comment he made. The team suffered successive defeats in the Lions 1997 tour and the 1997 Tri Nations Series.
In 1997, coach Nick Mallett coached South Africa’s unbeaten 1997 tour of Europe, and in 1998 the Boks tied the then-existing record for longest test winning
streak, winning 17 consecutive tests, including the 1998 Tri-Nations. At the 1999 Rugby World Cup the Springboks reached the semi-finals of the competition, where they lost to eventual champions Australia.
The 2006 Springboks lost to France, ending their long undefeated home record. A poor 2006 Tri Nations Series included two losses to the Wallabies. Coach Jake Whitetold the press in July 2006 that he had been unable to pick some white players for his squad “because of transformation”—a reference to the ANC government’s policies to redress racial imbalances.
2007 Rugby World Cup victory
At the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France, the Springboks won their pool. The Springboks then defeated Fiji 37–20 in the quarterfinals, and Argentina 37–13 in the semi-finals. In the final they prevailed 15–6 over England to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time.
In January 2008, Peter de Villiers was appointed as the first non-white coach of the Springboks. De Villiers’s first squad included ten of colour. The team finishes last in theTri Nations, but notched several wins during their 2008 end of year tour.
The 2009 season was more successful. The Boks earned a 2–1 series win over the Lions, and then won the 2009 Tri Nations Series. However, during the November teststhey lost their top spot in the IRB rankings with losses to France and Ireland. Nonetheless, the Boks were named IRB International Team of the Year.
The Boks’ June 2010 test campaign included a win over France (their first victory over the French since 2005). However, the Boks performed poorly in the 2010 Tri Nations campaign, sliding to third in the world rankings. In the 2011 Tri Nations the Boks rested a number of players in preparation for the upcoming World Cup. At the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the Springboks topped their group before falling to Australia 11–9 in the quarter-final.
The Springbok nickname and logo also dates from the 1906–7 tour of Britain. The springbok was chosen to represent the team by tour captain Paul Roos in an attempt to prevent the British press from inventing their own name. 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. After the fall of apartheid in 1992 a wreath of proteas was added to the logo. When the ANC was elected in 1994 the team’s name was not changed to the Proteas, like that of other South African sporting teams, only because of the intervention of President Nelson Mandela.
In December 2008, the SARU decided to place the protea on the left side of the Boks’ jersey, in line with other South African national teams, and move the springbok to the right side of the jersey. The new jersey was worn for the first time during the British and Irish Lions’ 2009 tour of South Africa.