NSW Country v South Africa
NSW Country v South Africa

If you were to walk down any of the streets in South Africa’s main cities of Johannesburg, Durban, or Cape Town, and ask the citizens of the Republic what their country’s rugby league team nickname is, you would be met with a blank stare. In comparison, walk those same streets and try to find someone who doesn’t know that South Africa’s rugby union side is referred to as the Springboks – you won’t find a single soul, because the Rainbow Nation is, to put it mildly, absolutely obsessed with rugby union. 

Interest in rugby league, on the other hand, is just about nonexistent, though. This is a peculiar situation and doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense, especially when you look at other rugby union playing countries and the way they have embraced rugby league. Indeed, look at the 2003 rugby union World Cup champions England and how popular Super League is in the country, especially in the north. 

Likewise, Australia’s NRL, which is probably the most popular rugby league tournament in the world, dominates the sports landscape down under. There is always a clamour in Australia around the sport and now is no different as the country reaches a fever pitch as the Grand Final draws ever closer. The NRL odds on bet365 show that the Roosters are once again favourites to defend the title that they won last year in front of an incredible 82,000 people. As mentioned, nothing quite gets Australians going like rugby league. 

But the same can’t be said for Australis’s southern hemisphere neighbours. There is no national league to talk about and South Africa’s rugby league team have only ever qualified for two World Cups, in 1995 and 2000, although they have yet to register a World Cup win having lost all their previous fixtures. 

With this in mind, you could be forgiven for thinking that South Africa’s poor showing has turned the nation off the sport but the truth is, they were never watching those World Cup games in the first place. They’re simply not interested.

This is a country that has won three rugby union World Cups with the latest being in 2019 against England in Japan. Also, their Sevens team is regularly winning the World Series around the globe, so you imagine that, if South Africa did begin to take rugby league seriously, they would get to the summit of the sport fairly quickly. 

But the chances of that happening are next to nothing given that the powers that be of South African sport see no sense in installing the grassroots structure required to grow the game. The lure of playing for the Springboks – the nation’s golden boys – will always be too strong to tempt any youngster in the country into playing rugby league, and therefore any attempt to change that now is considered a futile one. 

In many respects, South Africa’s refusal to take up rugby league comes down to the cultural significance of what their rugby union side represents to everyone in the Rainbow Nation. Had South Africa not endured such a turbulent past than maybe rugby league would have stood more of a chance, but once Nelson Mandela made the Springboks the symbol of nation-building and hope, there was never going to be any way that the Rhinos – yes, that’s what their rugby league team is nicknamed – would ever be able to compete.