The match began with Kapa o Pango, an iteration of the haka first performed in 2005 for the Tri-Nations encounter between South Africa and New Zealand. It sparked mild controversy at the time for the closing gesture in the sequence which sees All Black players rake their thumb across their neck. The official line is that this symbolises the drawing of energy into the heart and lungs but it unmistakably resembles the intimidatory act of throat-slitting.
Rugby union has long been guilty of self-aggrandisement. Devotees of the oval ball still speak of the game as if it exists in the bygone era of the amateur gentleman, conveniently ignoring the swathes of advertisements littering players’ jerseys or their eye-watering salaries. Romantics still believe referees are afforded more respect than officials in other sports or that ingrained values place this pastime on a moral pedestal.
But there is no denying the primal tug, that ancient rumble that stirs deep in the subconscious whenever the two most successful teams in the game’s history meet. And for the 100th collision of a rivalry stretching back 100 years, the fearsome sight of 15 action men dressed in black intimating their intention for blood was a fitting scene-setter.
The game threatened to explode into a classic. Cody Taylor’s run against the grain and pass to Will Jordan on three minutes was a thing of beauty. The All Blacks hooker possesses more speed and skill than most backline players to have competed in this contest across the century. Then, three minutes later, Sbu Nkosi, a young man whose skin colour would have barred him from taking part before 1994, capitalised on a rare New Zealand error to score a try dripping with meaning if you know where to look.
Ultimately it is just another rugby match, an organised event contested by highly trained professionals for the sole purpose of mass entertainment and the continuation of lucrative revenue streams. But sport is so much more than that, and this relationship transcends the four lines of the pitch in ways very few in any sport can match.
It once almost tore New Zealand in half as the nation’s governing body chose to ignore the crimes against humanity committed by South Africa’s apartheid regime and host the propaganda tool that was the Springboks in 1981. Protesters forced the cancellation of a game in Hamilton. A low-flying plane dropped ‘flour-bombs’ on the pitch in Auckland. The All Blacks won that Test and claimed the series 2-1. It would be the last meeting between the two for 11 years.
When they next met in 1992 the Springboks still played under the apartheid flag, but a new dawn was peering over the horizon. Three years later in Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela handed Francois Pienaar the Webb Ellis Cup after Jonah Lomu and his indomitable All Blacks were defeated. The Springboks captain, now representing a nation with a new flag and rainbow-coloured vision of its future, stated that his team achieved the unthinkable with a united country at their back.
That World Cup and its final, the only rugby event turned into a Hollywood blockbuster, is so wrapped up in the narrative of the ‘new’ South Africa and Mandela’s ideals that to wonder out loud if any of it had any lasting impact leaves one open to being branded a revisionist. Siya Kolisi’s victory in 2019 was heralded as a triumph in its own right, but that too was placed within the context of 1995 and how the country has progressed and stagnated since.
To many South Africans, even those not enamoured with the sight of 30 enormous humans battering each other for 80 minutes, the All Blacks are not simply sporting rivals. They have been reimagined into something resembling Theseus’s Minotaur – a seemingly unconquerable foe that cannot be beaten with skill alone, but only with divine help and the steadfast belief in the virtuous quest.
This was dubbed ‘Madiba Magic’ after Mandela’s loving nickname. The All Blacks, like apartheid, government corruption or perennial inequality, are portrayed as enemy of the South African spirit. Of course, New Zealand rugby is nowhere near as insidious as the rest, but try telling that to Pieter van Zyl, who ran on the field to tackle referee David McHugh in 2002, or Johan le Roux, who bit Sean Fitzpatrick’s ear in 1994.
New Zealand of course feel this too, to some degree. Rumbles of alleged food poisoning ahead of the 1995 showpiece still emanate from across the Indian Ocean and major caveats have been placed on the Springboks’ World Cup wins in 2007 and 2019 – that they never played against, or that they lost to the All Blacks and so were unworthy champions.
These two teams now represent opposing theories on how the game should be played. New Zealand won this latest bout after an arm wrestle and took back control at the top of the world rankings last week. The rivalry endures. History fades to mythology. The narrative continues.