Empty stadium awaits world champion Springboks on Test return

·3-min read
Captain Siya Kolisi (C) and the Springboks celebrate winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan

Captain Siya Kolisi and his Rugby World Cup-winning Springboks will return to the international stage in Pretoria on Friday against Georgia in conditions far removed from what they would have wished for.

Instead of a cheering, flag-waving capacity crowd, the men in green and gold will run into an empty Loftus Versfeld stadium that can accommodate 50,000 spectators.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit South Africa harder than any other major rugby nation with the Springboks unable to play a Test since defeating England in the 2019 World Cup final in Japan 20 months ago.

A 1900 local time (1700 GMT) kickoff means the world champions will not only notice endless rows of empty seats because of Covid-19 restrictions, but also feel the mid-winter cold.

But Kolisi, who became the Springboks' first black Test captain in 2018, is still thrilled at the prospect of playing international rugby again.

"Of course we would have loved to play on a warm evening in a packed stadium," said the 30-year-old flanker who changed franchises this year, moving from the Stormers in Cape Town to the Sharks in Durban.

"You (the media) saw the jubilant reactions of all South Africans when we returned home with the World Cup trophy. The Springboks are truly a team of the people now."

South Africa fielded all-white teams for 90 years, before and during the apartheid era, and the subsequent transition to a multiracial squad had been frustratingly slow until three years ago.

When former Springbok loose forward Rassie Erasmus was named national director of rugby, he speeded up the process and six of the starting 15 players in the World Cup final were black.

- Two new caps -

There will also be six black starters against Georgia in the first match of a two-Test series designed to prepare the Springboks for three matches against the touring British and Irish Lions from July 24.

Among them are the two new caps, wingers Rosko Specman and Aphelele Fassi, chosen by head coach Jacques Nienaber, who was appointed in January 2020 after Erasmus vacated the role he temporarily filled in Japan.

Specman, who has been loan to the Stormers from the Cheetahs, was part of the South African sevens team that won bronze medals at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

Fassi, who plays for the Sharks, is widely regarded as the most exciting backline prospect in South Africa.

Nienaber said he, the players and everyone connected with the Springboks "just want to get used to international rugby again.

"Let us get used to the pace of the game again, the physicality, the small margins that determine the outcome of international matches.

"We believe we have a good balance with a number of experienced campaigners and a few young players who have made strong statements this season.

"They have proved that they deserve an opportunity at this level, and the commitment and enthusiasm they displayed at training has been striking."

Georgia, who lost 46-19 at the 2003 World Cup in the only previous meeting between the countries, will rely heavily on France-based players, choosing 12 in the starting line-up.

"It is a big honour to play against the world champions," said coach Levan Maisashvili, who had a three-month internship at the Sharks 15 years ago.


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