"Well if we don’t win this match, there will be 31 green and gold lemmings returning to jump off that cliff .”
The ancient Greeks invented the word called hubris to describe how excessive pride and conceited confidence precedes a mighty fall.
Looking back on it now, four years since arguably the most traumatic event in Springbok history, there was hubris written all over the Boks’ preparations for their World Cup opener against Japan at the Brighton Community Stadium. The Boks were based in the nearby seaside town of Eastbourne and the week began with Jean de Villiers bringing the house down at the Boks’ welcoming ceremony in a Victorian theatre. After a series of crusty speeches by dignitaries, the captain took the mic and gave an uproarious speech that had nearly a thousand supporters rolling in the aisles.
“Mrs mayor,” De Villiers said, abandoning all formalities, “you say this theatre was opened in 1870. Victor Matfield remembers it well and is pleased to report that nothing has changed.”
De Villiers closed with this quip. “Mrs mayor, you say that a local attraction is Beachyhead, the highest chalk cliff in England. I hear it is also a popular suicide spot. Well if we don’t win this match, there will be 31 green and gold lemmings returning to jump off that cliff .”
Just six days later it appeared as though De Villiers had visited Beachyhead and it was his ghost seated at the post-match press conference. Gaunt and pale with shock, he could barely speak. In fact, all he could muster in a strained voice was: “I am at a loss for words ”
A broken man, he was sadly a far cry from the raconteur of earlier in the week. Next to him was Heyneke Meyer, wide-eyed with the terror of a man who had just witnessed his family’s execution. “Sorry, we’re sorry. We apologise to the nation,” the crestfallen coach muttered.
Maybe it was the nine days of boredom in the tranquil town in the sunny south east of England that was the Boks’ undoing. The mayor had proudly pointed out that Eastbourne has on average more days of sunshine than any other English town, and indeed it was mostly sunny blue skies all week. The weather is also why it is the geriatric capital of England – Eastbourne is where many Poms go to retire and is nicknamed God’s Waiting Room.
Little wonder that the Bok players variously described themselves as “coiled up springs, volcanoes waiting to erupt and sprinters in starting blocks” but ultimately played with similar zest to the old dears with the purple-tinted hair pushing their Zimmer frames along the promenade.
On the other side of the fence was artful Eddie Jones, who had been plotting the downfall of the Boks for months. He had been so intense in the Japanese preparations that some of his players later openly said they were thrilled to see the back of him. Jones’ coaching shares shot through the roof thanks to this win and he was able to write his own cheque for the England job that became vacant when the host nation failed to make the play-offs.
All week Jones had waxed on about how difficult it would be to compete against the mighty Boks, but he did say this: “If we get some early points, watch how nervy the Boks get ” And he was spot on.
The Brave Blossoms got braver by the minute as they went about chopping the Boks down at the ankles and traversing play from one touchline to the other at great pace to tire their heavier foes.
And the neutrals in the 30 000 crowd, not to mention a good sprinkling of Japanese fans, exploded into life as it became increasingly apparent that David could well slay Goliath.
For observers around the world, it was a cracking game of rugby, pure entertainment. Each time the Boks seemed to be getting ahead, the Japanese would fight back.
Every time the Boks looked like they that had found a catalyst to get their game going with a try from the forwards, the Japanese bounced back with penalty goals by fullback Ayumu Goromaru, and, in the end, were thoroughly deserving of their win.
In the dying minutes, they could have taken an easy penalty goal to draw the game at 32-32, but chose a scrum and eventually scored a famous try that caused a seismic reverberation across the rugby world.
How could this happen? Simple. The No 13 ranked team in the world that day taught the Boks a lesson in passion, enterprise and courage. In return, the Boks were sadly insipid.
Lood de Jager, the best South African player that day summed it up: “If we are honest with ourselves, Japan should have had a larger winning margin. They were as good as we were bad. They lifted their game by 50% and we went down by the same percentage.”