This week rugby365.com columnist Tom Dawson-Squibb takes a look at the approach of South African sports teams... Are we, by nature, conservative as a sporting nation? And does it really matter?
100-and-something to nothing. That was roughly the score the SA Under-20 'Baby Boks' chalked up against Fiji.
Impressive in some ways for sure, but less so in light of the fact that we'd already crashed out of the tournament and were playing for fifth place.
(So, with all the usual caveats about being an outsider, and written with respect to the players and coaches who surely tried as hard as they could...)
It wasn't our failure in the tournament that stood out for me, however - although it surely saddened me to watch the Baby Blacks win their 10th tournament - it was more how well and freely we played when the pressure was off.
I'd put good money on the fact that if a sports historian were to go back in time and compile a statistical analysis on our win/loss ration in games that didn't matter, and more importantly, how our offensive statistics looked relative to games that counted, they'd find a spike in performance as well as points scored. In all sports.
So we're a nation that loves winning. Great. But we're also a nation that hates losing. Not uncommon you say, and you'd be right.
But it's the depth of our hatred, the extent to which we internalise and personalise it, and the history that our sporting losses dredge up in our past that differentiates us from our opponents.
We've been on the outs for so long politically and socially, that a chip on our shoulder has wedged itself in place, and possibly been wedged so deeply that it's not longer that really visible. And although things are changing and we are now much more integrated and part of the global mix, the mental and emotional muscle memory still exists.
And so what happens is that by and large we play our sport conservatively. Why else would the Proteas need to coin the phrase 'Brave Cricket' a few seasons ago?
"That's a given, mate," is what any Aussie would say.
To be fair, that conservative approach might come off for us once in a while, such as the 2007 Rugby World Cup, but over time, teams that play more freely will score more points than us, and over time, they'll win more than we will.
So what's really going on here?
Well, I reckon that we're a conservative nation in every respect, not only sport. It's quite an edgy point of view to unpack in terms of which parts and 'colours' of our country are more or less so than other, but for once we won't reduce all topics to that.
Suffice to say that when the chips are down, and even sometimes when they aren't, our sportsmen and coaches find it a much more comfortable to revert to the 'happy space' of defence first, kick before run, and chose the least risky option.
Except when the game doesn't matter.
And then our alter ego emerges: racy, euphoric, stylish. Free. Emancipated from the shackles of our dark psyche and frail confidence.
It's not a train smash though, as we're pretty successful in most sports, most of the time. But we're seldom brilliant and dashing. And aren't those the things that are worth being remembered for?
Until next time,
* Tom runs a company called Head Start Sport which focuses on the mental side of sport. He works currently with the Stormers, WP and UCT - as well as Rondebosch Boys' High School and Paarl Boys' High School.
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