Even if one is not impressed by the way New Zealand and South Africa are steering rugby in a bright new direction of high-tempo play, the wonderful spirit shown between the two teams and the obviously high respect they hold each other in, must gladden the heart of all who love sport for the character-building effects it can have.
The wonderful gesture made by the All Blacks in Wellington when Richie McCaw handed over gifts to Bryan Habana and Jean de Villiers for playing their 100th Tests will live long in the memory. The fact that nothing of that sort happened in Australia probably says more about the special relationship between the Springboks and All Blacks rather than any deficiencies on the Wallabies’ part.
But if the Springboks are going to win over even more hearts and minds – it is clear that still not everyone in South Africa believes they represent them – then perhaps they should take a leaf out of the book of their cricket counterparts who launched their ProteaFire campaign this week to some fanfare.
A huge part of the Proteas’ success in recent years has been due to the calibre of people in the team – the likes of Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy, Dale Steyn, Ryan McLaren, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander are all fantastic human beings – and the Springboks also have some fantastic leaders of men in their ranks, Jean de Villiers, Victor Matfield, Tendai Mtawarira, Adriaan Strauss, Duane Vermeulen, Francois Louw, Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen springing readily to mind.
Rugby will be facing their own World Cup challenge next year, but they will also be tested off the field with sponsors cutting back and transformation issues still bedevilling them.
Whether ProteaFire will help the cricketers finally win their World Cup remains to be seen but what is certain is that most of the population will be firmly behind them.
ProteaFire emphasises the importance of putting the team ahead of the individual and the concept of Ubuntu is a key part of Graeme Smith’s vision that started in 2007. Cricket is often, because of its tradition of statistics, a very individual game and one would have thought rugby, perhaps the greatest of team sports, would have been quicker to implement this sort of mission statement of what playing for the national side really means.
For the cricketers, their diversity will be their strength and rugby probably isn’t quite there yet.
Another important aspect of ProteaFire is that it is almost a contract the national team have signed with their supporters in terms of what is expected of them, on and off the field. As Hashim Amla pointed out, this does not mean treating players like babies.
“On the field, emotions can run high and nobody’s perfect. It’s not about having 15 saints, everybody’s different and it’s about getting the strengths of all 15 players together and dealing with any fallouts,” Amla said.
One cannot help but come to the conclusion that the current turmoil wreaking havoc in English cricket is born out of their failure to deal properly with issues of team culture and identity.
Kevin Pietersen can be a brat, but there have been difficult cricketers before who have been allowed to enjoy the middle of the spotlight while still contributing to the team success.
Last Saturday night at Ellis Park and Thursday night in the SuperSport studios were two proud evenings because it showed South African sports teams are getting it right.