Rugby in South Africa


For many South Africans, rugby is a serious matter, a source of bursting pride – or shattering disappointment. Here’s a guide to the game of rugby in South Africa.

rugby in south africa nelson mandela francois pienaar
Nelson Mandela in his No 6 shirt with rugby player Francois Pienaar shortly after the Springboks’ win the Rugby World Cup on home turf in 1995. (Image: Rugby World Cup)

Brand South Africa reporter
Rugby is one of South Africa’s big three sports, alongside soccer and cricket. For the many South African fans of the game, rugby is a serious matter, a source of bursting pride and joy – or shattering disappointment.

The country has traditionally fared extremely well on the world stage, and South African fans expect their national team to win every game it plays.

To help your understanding, here’s a quick guide to the game of rugby in South Africa:

  • The changing face of SA rugby
  • Springboks
  • Tri-Nations
  • Super Rugby
  • Currie Cup
  • Vodacom Cup

The changing face of South African rugby

Sport, like no other South African institution, has shown it has the power to heal old wounds.

When the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup on home turf in 1995, Nelson Mandela donned the No 6 shirt of the team’s captain – Francois Pienaar, a white Afrikaner – and the two embraced in a spontaneous gesture of racial reconciliation that melted hearts around the country.

A single moment, and 400 years of colonial strife and bitterness … suddenly seemed so petty.

For the disadvantaged people of the old apartheid South Africa, rugby was the white man’s game, and even more so the game of the Afrikaner. Traditionally, most communities of colour played soccer while, for white communities, rugby was the winter sport of choice.

Things have changed in South Africa since 1994, however, and the South African Rugby Football Union has been working hard to make rugby the game of all South Africans, mainly through an active development programme throughout the country.

At provincial age-group levels, players of colour are playing an increasingly prominent role as the development programme and the quota system begin to bear fruit.

Through the quota system, players of colour are being given the opportunity to compete at the higher levels of the game, and a growing number are showing that they belong there by securing places in Super 14 teams and – the highest honour for a South African rugby player – in the Springbok side.

The Springboks

The Springboks are the national rugby team and traditionally one of the sport’s international powerhouses. Every talented South African youngster dreams of one day wearing “the green and gold”.

The Boks have an outstanding international scoresheet, and for many years enjoyed a winning record against all other nations, until a slight slump in performances after South Africa’s return from international isolation in 1992.

New Zealand’s All Blacks now hold a slight edge in head-to-head meetings with the Springboks, but the South Africans retain a winning record against all other countries.

There have been five big highlights since South Africa’s return from international isolation. The first of these took place in 1995 when the country hosted rugby’s biggest tournament, the World Cup.

The Springboks made it through to the final at Ellis Park where, spurred on by a frenzied home crowd, and with the whole of South Africa willing them on, they trumped the All Blacks 15-12 in extra time to lift the sport’s most coveted trophy.

The Boks’ display, opening with a win over defending champions Australia and finishing with victory over favourites New Zealand, united the country, bringing people of all colours together just a year after South Africa’s first democratic elections.

The second highlight occurred in 1998, when South Africa broke New Zealand’s hold on the Tri-Nations, a competition that matches up the “big three” of the southern hemisphere, with Australia completing the trio.

The Kiwis had won the first two competitions without losing a match, but Gary Teichmann’s 1998 side showed spirit and poise in winning all four of their matches to lift the title for the first time.

The third highlight included the Springboks’ 1998 Tri-Nations title and went beyond it. It was a run of 17 victories in succession, equalling the world record run by New Zealand between 1965 and 1970 (which, appropriately, was halted by South Africa).

During their 1997/98 run, South Africa defeated Australia, New Zealand, France, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Italy – all of them, with the exception of Italy, teams rated amongst the world’s elite.

After a rough period, during which Springbok coaches came and went with alarming rapidity, Jake White was appointed coach in 2003. He would go on to lead the team in more matches than any other Springbok coach. He was also at the helm when the fourth great highlight was achieved.

In October 2007, South Africa beat England 15-6 in the final of the World Cup in Paris, after advancing through the tournament unbeaten, to join Australia as the only two-time winner of the William Webb Ellis Trophy.

Not long afterwards, Jake White was named International Rugby Board (IRB) Coach of the Year and Bryan Habana IRB Player of the Year. The Springboks were named IRB Team of the Year and, at the Laureus Sports Awards in February 2008, World Sports Team of the Year.

The following year they captured their third Tri-Nations title, defeating the All Blacks three times on their way to the title. They also beat the British and Irish Lions 2-1 in a three-match series.

In New Zealand, in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the Springboks won all of their pool matches, defeating Wales, Namibia, Fiji, and Samoa. They exited the tournament at the quarterfinals stage, falling 11-9 to Australia, which, incredibly, was the sole statistic they trailed the Wallabies by when the match was over.


The Tri-Nations was an annual competition that took place in July and August from 1996 to 2011 to decide the top international team in the southern hemisphere.

The competition was born of a demand for more regular competition between the southern hemisphere superpowers following the success of the 1995 World Cup.

Between them, the three competing countries – New Zealand, South Africa and Australia – have won six out of the seven World Cups contested since 1987, so to be crowned Tri-Nations champion was a great honour.

Tri-Nations champions:

  • 2011: Australia
  • 2010: New Zealand
  • 2009: South Africa
  • 2008: New Zealand
  • 2007: New Zealand
  • 2006: New Zealand
  • 2005: New Zealand
  • 2004: South Africa
  • 2003: New Zealand
  • 2002: New Zealand
  • 2001: Australia
  • 2000: Australia
  • 1999: New Zealand
  • 1998: South Africa
  • 1997: New Zealand
  • 1996: New Zealand

The Rugby Championship

In 2012, the Tri-Nations competition was expanded to include Argentina and became known as the Rugby Championship.

Reigning World Cup champions, New Zealand, became the first winners of the new competition.

The Rugby Championship champions:

  • 2012: New Zealand
  • 2013: New Zealand

Super Rugby

The Super Rugby competition features 15 regional teams from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, with each country providing five teams.

The forerunner of the competition was the Super 10, contested by provincial teams from the three countries as well as Samoa in 1993 and 1994 and Tonga in 1995.

In 1996, the competition became the Super 12, featuring provincial and regional teams from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, with the Tongans and Samoans falling out. Two more teams were added in 2006 and it became the Super 14.

The Super Rugby competition begins in February and runs through until August.

Five South African teams are selected from the Sharks (made up of players from the Natal Sharks), the Stormers (made up of players from Western Province and Boland), the Cheetahs (made up of players from the Cheetahs, Griquas and Griffons), the Lions (made up of players from the Lions, Pumas and Leopards), the Bulls (made up of players from the Blue Bulls and Falcons) and the Southern Kings (made up of players from the Kings, Bulldogs and Eagles)

Back in 1993, the team then known as Transvaal (now the Lions) beat New Zealand team Auckland to win the first Super 10 competition.

But it was to be a long wait for local fans for the next South African Super rugby winner: until 2007, when the Bulls scored a converted try after the final hooter to sneak a 20-19 win against the Sharks in Durban.

Super Rugby champions:

  • 2012: Chiefs (NZ)
  • 2013: Chiefs (NZ)

Super 14 champions:

  • 2011: Reds (Aus)
  • 2010: Bulls (SA)
  • 2009: Bulls (SA)
  • 2008: Crusaders (NZ)
  • 2007: Bulls (SA)
  • 2006: Crusaders (NZ)

Super 12 champions:

  • 2005: Crusaders (NZ)
  • 2004: Brumbies (Aus)
  • 2003: Blues (NZ)
  • 2002: Crusaders (NZ)
  • 2001: Brumbies (Aus)
  • 2000: Crusaders (NZ)
  • 1999: Crusaders (NZ)
  • 1998: Crusaders (NZ)
  • 1997: Blues (NZ)
  • 1996: Blues (NZ)

Super 10 champions:

  • 1995: Queensland (Aus)
  • 1994: Queensland (Aus)
  • 1993: Transvaal (SA)

Currie Cup

The Currie Cup, the premier provincial rugby competition in South Africa, was first contested in 1892. The format of the Currie Cup varied from year to year, and finals were held intermittently until 1968, after which the final became an annual event.

Up to and including 2011, the most successful province in the history of the Currie Cup is Western Province with 32 titles (four shared), followed by the Blue Bulls with 23 (four shared), the Lions with 10 (one shared), the Natal Sharks with six, and the Cheetahs with four (one shared). Other teams that have lifted the trophy include Griquas (three times) and Border (twice, both shared).

For many years the biggest rivalry in South African rugby was between Western Province and the Blue Bulls. During the early to mid-1990s this was superseded by a three-way rivalry between Natal, the Lions and Western Province.

The Blue Bulls have returned to Currie Cup prominence, however, while the Free State Cheetahs won three titles in succession, from 2005 to 2007, including sharing the Currie Cup with the Blue Bulls in 2006.

The Currie Cup takes place roughly between July and October. The format divides 14 teams into eight Premier Division and six First Division teams.

The teams, in alphabetical order, are: Blue Bulls, Boland Cavaliers, Border Bulldogs, Eagles, Falcons, Free State Cheetahs, Golden Lions, Griffons, Griquas, Leopards, Mighty Elephants, Natal Sharks, Pumas and Western Province.

Currie Cup champions (since 1994):

  • 2013: Natal Sharks
  • 2012: Western Province
  • 2011: Golden Lions
  • 2010: Natal Sharks
  • 2009: Blue Bulls
  • 2008: Natal Sharks
  • 2007: Free State Cheetahs
  • 2006: Blue Bulls / Free State Cheetahs
  • 2005: Free State Cheetahs
  • 2004: Blue Bulls
  • 2003: Blue Bulls
  • 2002: Blue Bulls
  • 2001: Western Province
  • 2000: Western Province
  • 1999: Golden Lions
  • 1998: Blue Bulls
  • 1997: Western Province
  • 1996: Natal Sharks
  • 1995: Natal Sharks
  • 1994: Transvaal

Vodacom Cup

The Vodacom Cup has become an important competition on the South African rugby calendar. It takes place at the same time as the Super 14 competition – starting in late February and finishing in mid-May – and thus creates a platform for talented young players who might otherwise not get a chance to make their mark.

It has also been a fertile breeding ground for strong players from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, thanks to the enforcement of quotas. Quotas, successfully implemented lower down, now extend through the higher levels of South African rugby, including the Super 14.

The Vodacom Cup is divided into two sections – North and South – with the top two teams advancing to the semi-finals and playing cross-section matches of one- versus-two for a place in the final.

The North is made up of the Griffons, Pumas, Golden Lions, Griquas, Blue Bulls, Leopards XV, Valke, and the Limpopo Blue Bulls. The South’s teams are the Sharks XV, Free State XV, Western Province, Tusker Simba XV (Kenya), SWD Eagles, EP Kings, Boland Cavaliers, and Border.

Since the first Vodacom Cup season in 1998, up to and including 2014, the Golden Lions have won four titles, including a hat-trick from 2002 to 2004, while Griquas have also claimed four titles.

The Golden Lions have taken the honours on five occasions, while there have also been titles for and Blue Bulls , the Falcons, Western Province, Griqualand West, Free State Cheetahs and Argentina’s Pampas XV.

Vodacom Cup champions:

  • 2014: Griquas
  • 2013: Golden Lions
  • 2012: Western Province
  • 2011: Pampas XV (Arg)
  • 2010: Blue Bulls
  • 2009: Griquas
  • 2008: Blue Bulls
  • 2007: Griquas
  • 2006: Falcons
  • 2005: Griquas
  • 2004: Golden Lions
  • 2003: Golden Lions
  • 2002: Golden Lions
  • 2001: Blue Bulls
  • 2000: Free State Cheetahs
  • 1999: Golden Lions
  • 1998: Griqualand West

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