How the Springboks became back-to-back World Champions

South Africa's captain Siya Kolisi in action. Picture: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

South Africa's captain Siya Kolisi in action. Picture: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Published Nov 11, 2023


How did the Springboks overcome the odds to become back-to-back Rugby World Cup winners?

It took a lot more than just their performances on the pitch that took them over the try line, according to Wits University Professor of Sports and Exercise Medicine, Jon Patricios.

Patricios, also a consultant to World Rugby and South African rugby, says the togetherness of the Boks is what separated them from their competitors during the tournament.

“There’s no question that the Springboks were very well conditioned as were most of the other teams that took part, but I think perhaps what distinguished this team was the extent of their togetherness that brought them together,” Patricios said.

“Not only their self-belief, but their belief in each other as teammates is what pulled them over the line when they really needed it during very tight phases of the tournament.”

“As an example of this, the teams scramble defence in all three knock-out games was second to none and no team does that without being physically well prepared, strategically conditioned, and believing in their system, themselves and their teammates.”

Patricios says it was very likely that the Bokke began preparations for their World Cup journey in France already four years ago when they last lifted the trophy.

“I think that for all the teams competing, the preparation was arduous and they underwent very systematic physical, psychological, and team conditioning.”

“I think the difficulty with many teams, South Africa in particular is that players are playing all over the world, and so to try to monitor their conditioning and then to bring them to camp all together isn’t easy, so we need to appreciate that this process took place over not just the four-year World Cup cycle but preceding that.”

Eben Etzebeth and Francois Hougaard celebrate Siya Kolosi's try against Argentina at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth in 2021. Picture: Phando Jikelo/Independent Newspapers

“Credit must go to the management for their strategic planning because for the payers to come through the gruelling schedule that they had, they had to be physically and mentally very well prepared.”

“I think the Springboks in particular showed mental grit in rising to the occasion three games in a row where the stakes were very high and the margins very fine to overcome really tough world-class opponents by one point in their crucial knock-out stages.”

Patricios said aside from being physically prepared for the tournament, it was just as crucial that the players were mentally prepared.

“Unfortunately in sport, particularly in South Africa, sports psychologists are seen as something of a quick fix when something goes wrong with individuals or teams.

“The players’ mental health, like all our mental health, is very important, and we need to be looking out for that throughout their preparation in a tournament and throughout their careers.

“So that mental preparation in terms of how mentally conditioned one is , how the team is attuned to what they want to achieve and how they learn to deal with adversity is critically important in terms of dealing with a tournament of this nature and throughout their careers,” he said.

“My take way message is that mental health is very important and that having a team that is mentally healthy and well prepared is equally important as a team that is physically prepared.”

Physically, Patricios says the team needed to be in tip-top shape in France.

“Of course rugby is one of the most physical collision sports, it’s not a contact sport, it’s a collision sport.

“Preparation has to be specific to rugby so the players have to be conditioned to take hits and to defend intensively and that takes conditioning that takes into account all aspects including flexibility, strength, power, speed and endurance.

“It’s an interesting aspect that although players need to learn to take contact, they also need to protect themselves from contact, so part of the strategy of the Springboks and also other teams was to limit the amount of contact they make and to make that contact practise count.

“They need to focus on technique more than anything else.

“We’ve also seen high tackles being penalised during the competition and this is a trend that the Springboks have had to take into account. The fact that their disciplinary record was better than any of the higher ranked teams shows the effectiveness of the preparation in these contact situations.”

Patricios says recovery would have also played a vital part in the Springboks defence of the World Cup.

“Recovery is very important and takes the form of physical recovery, which is rest and relative rest, which is less strenuous exposure to exercise and utilising exercise for recovery – that might be things like stretching and cardiovascular exercise.

Uzair Cassiem and Eben Etzebeth celebrate Siya Kolosi's try against Argentina at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth in 2021. Picture: Phando Jikelo/Independent Newspapers

“It also takes the form of nutritional recovery, which is eating properly after every training session and matches and between matches.”

“Making sure they were hydrated at all times was also important particularly during the early parts of the tournament where it was quite hot.

“It also takes the form of psychological recovery in terms of breaking away from the game.

“The Springboks were very good in this way allowing a family type of environment so the players could break away and relieve themselves of the stresses of rugby and just focus on other things for a while, so kudos for the preparation and the environment created by management,” he said.

Wits University Professor of Sports and Exercise Medicine, Jon Patricios. Patricios is also a consultant to World Rugby and South African Rugby

“With regards to preparation and how in shape the player has to be in the modern game, it goes without saying that this is not a game to play when you’re unconditioned.

“The conditioning of rugby and tuning one’s body to the demand of the professional game takes years, and it’s important that the player is managed from his or her early years to be able to condition for the game and to also rehabilitate from injury so they don’t carry weaknesses through their careers which subject them to further injury.”

Asked how the Boks would be feeling right now after such a gruelling month of rugby, Patricios said: “There is no question that they have taken a degree of physical toll and I’m glad to see that a number of the clubs and provincial teams have forced their players to take a three-week lay-off.

“Some players who played less have gone back to playing, but I think in terms of the physical and mental recovery, it’s important to have a break.

“One of the criticisms of the modern game is that players tend to play year round. A physical game like rugby requires a period away from the game, not just to rest but to recuperate and rehabilitate physically and mentally.”

Patricios says he couldn’t be prouder of the mammoth effort made by the Springboks in France.

“Like all South Africans, I was delighted, in fact ecstatic at the Springboks becoming world champions.

“I think the journey was a difficult one, but it was made even more special the way the team had to fight so hard to achieve what they did.”

Saturday Star

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