On the eve of hosting the FIFA World Cup, South Africa finds itself unexpectedly captivated by the oval and not the round ball — with today’s Super 14 final in Soweto pitting the Bulls against the Stormers.
The meeting of the two South African provincial powerhouses at the Orlando Stadium in the black township has been hailed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as “the most important development in South African rugby since the World Cup in 1995.”
The Springboks hosted and won that World Cup just a year after South Africa’s first democratic elections and the victory, and then-president Nelson Mandela’s support of the predominantly white team, promoted reconciliation.
Those heady days were the subject of Oscar-nominated film Invictus and, with the soccer World Cup less than two weeks away, South Africa is once again focused on the nation-building power of sport.
The Bulls-Stormers clash has even temporarily overshadowed talk about the host nation’s struggling soccer team, Bafana Bafana.
In a country where racial integration in rugby remains fractious, it is the Bulls’ decision to play in Soweto that has seen the match take on a far wider significance.
Soweto is hosting the game because the Bulls’ home ground, Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, is being prepared for the World Cup. Tutu described the match as an iconic moment.
“It is one of those special South African moments that proves we are better off for having one another, and that despite the challenges we face, our society is on the right track,” Nobel Peace Prize winner Tutu said in a statement.
It is the Cape-Town based Stormers’ first Super 14 final, while the champion Bulls are aiming for a third trophy in four years.
“If you want to make your mark in South African rugby, you don’t get a better opportunity than to go and play the Bulls in Soweto,” said Stormers coach Allister Coetzee, a black man who was denied a Springbok cap as a player during the apartheid era. “If you win the battle there, you will be remembered for a long time. We have to embrace this opportunity to play in Soweto and be part of this bit of history in our country.”