Sonny & Darren in Johannesburg

When I was in Johannesburg last year during the FIFA World Cup football tournament, I went to a coffee shop with my South African buddy Darren Taylor, a reporter for the Voice of America. While I sipped my dark roast, I quickly found out about the percolating popularity of South Africa’s national rugby team, nicknamed The Springboks.

The Springboks were playing an international match on television, and Darren and the other coffee shop patrons had their eyes glued to the action, cheering wildly whenever the South African team scored. I’m sure Darren and many South Africans will be cheering again on Sunday when the defending champion Springboks kick off their World Cup campaign against Wales in Wellington, New Zealand.

The Springboks are bidding for their third Rugby World Cup title. They beat England, 15-6, in the final of the 2007 Rugby World Cup, at the Stade de France just outside Paris. And in 1995, playing on home soil at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, the South African team made history by beating the All Blacks of New Zealand, 15-12 in extra time, for their first World Cup trophy.

Invictus movie poster

Following the big victory, South African President Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springbok rugby shirt and cap, presented the Webb Ellis Cup to South African captain Francois Pienaar. Their celebration on the Ellis Park pitch is credited with helping unite a country that had been torn apart by racial tensions from the apartheid era. It also inspired the 2009 Clint Eastwood film, Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as President Mandela and Matt Damon as Pienaar.

John Smit, who captained the Springboks to the World Cup title in France four years ago, will again lead the team in New Zealand. The 33-year-old Smit has been criticized by fans and media in South Africa in advance of this World Cup for being badly out of form.  But rugged teammate Bakkies Botha is backing Smit. “He’s the best captain I’ve played under in leadership,” says Botha, “and as a person – he’s phenomenal.”

Botha and Smit are both playing in their third Rugby World Cup. They are part of an experienced South African squad that is bidding to become the first team to successfully defend its Rugby World Cup championship. If they lift the trophy on October 23 in Auckland, I’m sure Darren Taylor and many other South Africans will say once again, “GO SPRINGBOKS!”