The Springboks: A Beacon of Teamwork, Trust, and Cooperation

As the final whistle sounded in the Rugby World Cup final, South Africa’s victory over New Zealand sent shockwaves throughout the world of sports. For many, this was more than just another championship; it was an affirmation of the remarkable ethos that has come to define the Springboks—a testament to the power of diversity, teamwork, trust, a lack of personal ego, and a resolute focus on the team’s success. In the spirit of exploring the ethical underpinnings of the Springboks’ success, we delve into the work of Frans de Waal, a prominent Dutch-American primatologist and ethologist, whose insights shed light on the moral behaviour of humans and animals.

South Africa’s triumph is not merely about winning back-to-back World Cups; it’s about the way they’ve played the game. They navigated a challenging pool that included Ireland and Scotland, overcame the hosts France in the quarter-finals, and defeated England and New Zealand in the semi-final and final, respectively. The victory was a triumph of character, resilience, and a level of commitment that few teams can match.

Why are the Springboks so exceptional? It’s their unwavering commitment to one another and the realisation that their success is not a zero-sum game. They’ve developed a unique approach that prioritises the collective benefit over personal gain. Director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, despite making controversial decisions along the way, embodies this spirit of selflessness. He and his coaching staff meticulously analyse every aspect of the game, leaving no stone unturned. Their approach is reminiscent of an NFL team, with specialists on the sidelines dissecting the opposition’s moves and relaying instructions to the players on the field.

This might seem like an excessive level of oversight, but it all boils down to one thing—winning as a collective and not as an individual. While other teams may bask in their pride, family support, and caps, the Springboks carry a steely, selfish team determination to succeed at the highest level. They love their country, their teammates, and their families, and their ultimate objective is not to just play for themselves, but to sacrifice and play for something bigger than them. To play for everyone on and off the field.

Ethics play a significant role in the Springboks’ success. Their unwavering focus on team cohesion and unity leverages empathy for every team member. While some may not wholeheartedly embrace every aspect of their approach, there’s an undeniable truth in the power of their collective spirit. The Springboks’ ethical commitment to each other allows them to endure and triumph, even in the face of adversity.

For example, let’s take the decision of replacing Manie Libbok with Handre Pollard. This had been a topic of fervent debate among Springboks fans in the run-up to the game, with Pollard demonstrating his worth by orchestrating a remarkable comeback win against England at the Stade de France.

However, in the lead-up to the final, there was uncertainty within the Springboks camp about whether Pollard would indeed start ahead of Libbok. It is evident that Pollard’s performances warranted his selection over his jersey rival.

In the pursuit of a 7-1 split strategy, it means that Manie Libbok played no on-field role in the Rugby World Cup final.

Despite Libbok being recognised as a potent threat with the ball in hand and as someone who has brilliantly steered the Springboks’ backline in attack throughout the World Cup, Rassie Erasmus and his coaching staff faced questions about whether the return to the tried-and-tested Pollard would signify a shift in the team’s playing style.

Francois Nienaber, the team’s head coach, responded, “No, not necessarily. Handre (Pollard) was sidelined due to injury, and that’s why Manie had to step up. He is an exceptional rugby player. If we had opted for a 5:3 split strategy, he would have had his chance.”

 It’s important to emphasise that within the Springbok squad, nobody is dropped. Players are selected for specific situations, a concept that all Springboks are well aware of. This concept would never work if the individual was more important than the team. This team is not about individual glory; it’s about offering hope to a nation.

Frans de Waal, a pioneering figure in the study of morality in animals and humans, has provided valuable insights into the very ethics that underlie the Springboks’ triumph. De Waal’s work highlights several key elements that contribute to moral behaviour, which align with the Springboks’ ethos:

  1. Empathy: De Waal’s research emphasises the importance of empathy in moral behaviour among animals and humans. Empathy involves understanding and sharing the feelings of others, which can drive prosocial behaviour and moral decision-making. The Springboks’ unity and commitment to each other are a testament to the power of empathy within the team.
  2. Reciprocity: De Waal has observed reciprocity and fairness in animal interactions, concepts integral to our understanding of moral behaviour. The Springboks’ focus on fairness and working together as a team reflects this ethical aspect.
  3. Cooperation: In an age where individual brilliance often takes centre stage, the Springboks hark back to an era when the collective was paramount. Their unity and commitment to the team’s cause are values that have not only brought them World Cup glory but have also elevated them to the status of a role model for teams across the globe.

As we bask in the glory of South Africa’s unparalleled achievements on the rugby field, let’s not forget the profound life lessons that their journey imparts. The Springboks have shown us that diversity, teamwork, trust, and a shared commitment to a greater good can overcome the odds. In a world that often prioritises the self over the team, the Springboks remind us that it’s the collective spirit, driven by unwavering determination and ethical unity, that leads to true greatness.

As the Springboks continue to inspire both on and off the field, they prove that the power of teamwork, trust, and ethics, as illuminated by Frans de Waal’s research, remains the most potent formula for success. South Africa’s triumph is not just about rugby; it’s about the enduring values that make them a template for greatness in a diverse and ever-changing world.

Dr Paul Vorster is a Senior Research Specialist at The Ethics Institute.