The Springbok Rugby Team: Three Educational Lessons

“Rugby is a hooligans sport played by gentleman” the saying goes (as opposed to football, which is the opposite). Hyperbole aside, there is something remarkable about the camaraderie one finds between rugby fans: there are never crowd incidents and a deontological code of respect transcends not only the discipline players have in accepting the referees’ decisions, but the whole culture of rugby, which, despite the surface violence of the game itself, is built on peace and friendship.

This year’s rugby World Cup saw South Africa win for the fourth time in a nail-biting final against the mythic All Blacks. In following the team, three concepts came to mind which can help us in our reflections about the potential effect of an education:

  1. Unity

There was nothing individualistic about the squad. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the team was that the “bench” (the substitutes) was essentially as important as the starting players. The coach’s strategy was to use the substitutes strategically rather than merely to replace tired players. When interviewed on the victory, the charismatic captain Siya Kholosi spoke of a fleet of birds flying in a V formation – when one drops out, another automatically takes the position that has been left vacant. Assessments, projects, and general learning environments that draw on the collective and understand that learning is a social, team effort are more successful than cultures built on individualism. When students support each other, learning gains are stronger. 

  1. Relevance and purpose

The players kept coming back to the importance of this win for South Africa, a country that has been ravaged by iniquity and violence but at the same time in which there is an extraordinary human spirit. During the apartheid years, rugby was an entirely white sport but over the years it has come to be more multiracial and today the whole nation celebrates the Springboks’ victory. The players were clearly motivated by a higher purpose – the lift that this would give people at home – and this brought out the best in them. Our curricula must be relevant to the needs of society and the planet, not dry intellectual abstractions. This is all the more important in a world where climate change, political upheaval and globalisation are particularly virulent sources of change and impact. Curriculum relevance is about serving students with an education that makes sense to them and equips them for social realities.

  1. Self-belief

The Springboks beat France, England and New Zealand in the Quarterfinals, Semifinals and Finals by one point in each match! Every single detail mattered and on each occasion it came down to the accuracy of a kick, the precision of a tackle on the try line or the discipline of a scrum. To win like that, down to the wire with your back against the wall, takes not only courage but a razor sharp mentality that will not waver from a belief that victory is inevitable. We teach our students subjects, skills and dispositions. Self-belief, confidence, mindset are vital and should feature strongly in curriculum design and the hidden curriculum. Our students are entering a fairly daunting world where there will be no shortage of challenges, and they will be successful if equipped with that deep-seated belief that they are capable of something exceptional. This is an educational value that comes down to parenting as much as teaching.

In a world divided by war, let the beauty of sports continue to inspire us to work together as a team and, at the end of the day, to come together as friends. There is tremendous value in sports as I’ve written before, and the exhilarating Springboks reminded us of the power that it has to lift the spirits of millions of people. 

2 thoughts on “The Springbok Rugby Team: Three Educational Lessons”

  1. Great post Conrad. Wonderful analysis and takeaways. I was lucky enough to attended the QF and Semi final games in Paris. When I returned to teaching the next week at my school in Tbilisi, I shared a couple of stories with my students (I made my homeroom students share their predictions for who they thought would win the tournament from the knockout stages onward-so they were interested), The first was that after South Africa beat France, I received not a single negative reaction from any of the French fans, despite being decked out in Bok gear and the French obviously stunned by the loss. In fact, before the game, many French fans came up to me and wished me luck. After the semi final, many of the England supporters sitting in the section near me came to me and shook my hand and congratulated me personally. My students were greatly impressed by the sportsmanship by the fans. As the basketball coach (and coming off a challenging season that lacked unity and sportsmanship ), I’ll borrow these lessons with the team for the upcoming season.

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