As a softball player and a swimmer, neither of us knew anything about rugby: the teams, the rules, or even how points are scored. The full-contact sport played without any protection seemed a weird, dangerous mix between American football and soccer. But we came to learn a great deal quickly. In South Africa, rugby is religion.
Our introduction to the sport was from the very first moment; during the first group movie night we watched the movie Invictus, which tells the story of the Springboks’ (South African national team) victory in the 1995 World Cup hosted in this nation. The movie revolves around the relationship between François Pienaar, the Springbok captain and Nelson Mandela, starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman as the respective historical figures. This film introduced us to the idea that rugby’s history in this country is tied closely to that of colonialism and apartheid and that a beloved sport is not free from the political complexities of South African life. But this was only the beginning of rugby experiences to be had in the Western Cape.
“Watching the young kids pretend to do rugby drills and hang on every word of the educational videos was a reminder of how powerful a force a shared sport can be for a country.”
During our excursions into Cape Town, we visited the Springbok rugby museum on the waterfront. This museum told every second of the Springbok story, including the Springbook’s storied and seemingly ancient rivalry with the New Zealand All-Blacks, their years banned from the national arena due to the connection to apartheid, and the 2007 rugby world cup game where they emerged the champions. Watching the young kids pretend to do rugby drills and hang on every word of the educational videos was a reminder of how powerful a force a shared sport can be for a country.
But to complete the rugby education, we had to watch a test (that’s the rugby term for a game if anyone wants to learn the lingo)! Thankfully, the home DHL Stormers took on the Sunwolves that night in Cape Town. Lucky for us, our cab driver stayed to watch the game with us and explained some of the more technical rules and regulations of the sport while the two teams battled it out on the pitch. The Stormers eventually emerged victorious, but the real fun was in watching all the violent tackles and lightning fast breakaways; the clock never truly stops in rugby so it was an action packed 90 minutes filled with scrums and tries. However, the brutality of the play was what made it stand out as its own unique sporting experience. I’m a little ashamed to admit how fun it was to see huge athletes crash into each other with amazing ferocity and bear witness to the painful outcomes.
We got to apply all this newly learned knowledge during our time in the township. Teaching the kids rugby was no easy task as the natural inclination for them to pass the ball forward led to chaos and many whistles blown. But through the two weeks we were able to pass along his newly learned knowledge down to this younger generation of rugby enthusiasts, Sean specifically took control over all the drills and games played. Some especially avid students even wanted to try the full-tackle game in lieu of the touch version we had been teaching!
Sport has always been a cornerstone of any facet of our lives and learning a new one has been a great way for both of us to connect more with the history, culture, and spirit of South Africa.