The South African International Rugby Team, known as the Springboks or simply ‘The Bokke’, recently took on Ireland on a crisp winter evening in Johannesburg. Ireland’s top international squad is currently on a three-week, three-city tour of the country to face the Springboks, and South Africa will travel to Great Britain later this year to face the rest of the UK. The first test of three took place last weekend in Cape Town, where Ireland edged out South Africa 26-20. Little did Cici and I know, our first experience with International Rugby would result in one of the most exciting comebacks I’ve witnessed in all of sport.
I purchased the tickets a couple months in advance, relishing the opportunity to see a South African rugby side, winners of the World Cup in 1995 and 2007, that is constantly regarded as one of the top teams in the world. The match was staged at Ellis Park, a colossal stadium rising steeply from the Hillbrow and Maboneng districts of Johannesburg. This stadium was home to the 1995 Rugby World Cup final match, where the Springboks triumphed over the vaunted All-blacks of New Zealand, and Nelson Mandela famously presented the trophy to SA captain François Pienaar in the championship ceremony. It was a lasting moment in South African sports and political history, which was recently immortalized in the excellent film ‘Invictus’. On a personal level, the stadium holds fond memories from when I witnessed the USA draw 2-2 with Slovenia in the soccer World Cup in 2010. Coincidentally, that match happened exactly 6 years earlier than my second trip to Ellis Park.
Cici and I took an Uber to the match, then weaved our way through the throngs of people and vendors dotting the local side streets to get into the stadium and make our way up the spiraling ramp to section 65. Our seats were about at the 50-meter line, but way up high near the rafters. Once we reached our seat, we realized how incredibly steep the stand was and felt a little precarious as we looked down on the bunches of happy (and drunk) fans singing their way to their seats. After hearing the pleasant Irish National Anthem, the crowd sang every syllable of the South African anthem at the top of their lungs. Ireland, in their classic kelly green kits, kicked off to the South Africans, wearing all white.
South Africa had a difficult first half. Every time they seemed to gain ground, they turned it over to the Irish. When they started to break down the sideline, an errant pass would kill their momentum. The Irish stayed strong and disciplined, and the whistle blew to end the first half with the Irish securing a massive lead, 19-3. The local fans who were so joyous in the build-up were now booing and jeering their home squad off the pitch.
During the first half, a message scrolled across the jumbo-trons on either end of the stadium: “Could the owner of CY94WFGP report to their vehicle as the vehicle was broken into”. It was a nice little reminder of the stadium’s location in the heart of Johannesburg’s urban core, and a stadium announcement I definitely haven’t seen anywhere else.
South Africa came out in the second half a different team altogether, with much more energy, drive and focus. Finally they found a breakthrough to score a beautiful try down the right flank, capped off by Ruan Combrinck bulldozing his way through a last-gasp tackle attempt. The Springboks had new life, but Ireland snagged a loose ball and answered with a try of their own just four minutes later. With just 20 minutes left, South Africa trailed 26-10. The elderly Irish gentlemen sitting next to us were singing louder and louder, much to the chagrin of the frustrated home supporters.
And then, South Africa went into overdrive. Dominating possession, they clawed for a few meters here and there before finding an opening on one of the wings. The Irish started missing tackles and looked more and more fatigued, perhaps dogged by the thin high veld air. South Africa found another try with 17 minutes left, then another six minutes later. With just 10 minutes to play, the Boks were down by just 4. The Irish clearly reeling, Damian de Allende found the ball around the attacking 22-meter line and simply burst through two would-be tacklers. He galloped across the try line and triumphantly spiked the ball down, completing an amazing South African comeback and sending the home crowd into a frenzy.
Cici and I enjoyed the patriotism and atmosphere of a great rugby match played in an historic stadium just minutes from our temporary home in Johannesburg. My biggest impression watching the game live for the first time was the distinct changes in momentum throughout the game. Additionally, even if you were a spectator with no concept of the rules, the crowd is so invested in every bounce, pass, and scrum that you can easily detect when something amazing is about to happen just based on the crescendo of noise produced by the masses. Luckily for us, this seemed to happen every other minute or so in the incredible second half.