Head Games – What’s at stake and what are the Lions and South Africa playing for?

What's at stake and what are the Lions and South Africa playing for?

What’s at stake and what are the Lions and South Africa playing for?

As in life, a large percentage of whether you win or lose in sport is dependent on what takes place in the head. Legendary Dutch footballer and coach Johan Cruyff put it very well. Here’s his quote, adapted slightly for the oval ball game.

“You play rugby with your head. Your hands, arms, legs and feet are there to help you.”

(Original quote reads, “You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you.”)

The squad announcements are in, and in roughly twenty-four hours the Lions and Springboks will kick-off. Social media is crackling with anticipation for this match-up. The crux of this article is trying to understand and unpack, “What’s at stake and what are the Lions and South Africa playing for?” There are the straightforward answers to these questions and then the more intangible factors like emotion and dare I say it – Politics?

Winning and Pride – What’s at stake and what are the Lions and South Africa playing for?

First and foremost the players want the win. They are professional and are representing the people that put them there: family, friends, mentors, their club, their partners, sponsors and so on. There is also personal pride at stake. To state the obvious sportsmen and women are competitive people. All the training and unbelievable hard graft need to have a reward. Of course, there’s glory to be had if you are successful in the big moments, at an individual and collective level. These factors we know and are fully aware of.

What about the intangibles? At this elite international level you are not only representing those just listed, but you are also representing your country. This isn’t as clear-cut as it first might appear. Usually, a country isn’t just one homogenised, unified body. More often than not it will be full of groups that have different outlooks and conflicting hopes. In sport, what a country represents or is thought to represent can be used as a motivational ingredient.

Settling Scores

Often scores that haven’t been settled off the field can be settled on it. Think of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and their black power salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The US wasn’t a racially equal country at that time, and the argument that it still isn’t now is hotly debated more than fifty years on. What Smith and Carlos showed, was black people’s excellence and success at a time when life was desperately difficult depending on your skin colour.

So how does this relate to the big game on Saturday? Often, Britain is seen as a big scalp in sport. The reasons for this are numerous: Empire and colonialism and how this is perceived, that popular sports were created here (at least in a form we know and understand in relation to sport today), British arrogance and hubris. As a motivating element, these ingredients are huge.

Colonial History

Can these historical motivations be applied to a diverse British and Irish Lions team? Possibly, but let’s look a little bit deeper. Even within the Lions group, the Irish would be particularly well versed in the negative effects of British colonial history. As you would expect Maro Itoje to be also. I’m making an assumption, but I would be surprised if he and his family didn’t know all about the horrors of the slave trade and the subsequent Western powers scramble for the African continent (also known as the partition, conquest or rape of Africa).

What about South Africa then, politically and in sport? There have been distressing scenes of late coming out of  KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Widespread rioting and looting took place following the arrest and incarceration of the previous president, Jacob Zuma. Also adding flames to that particular fire has been the Covid-19 lockdown and long-held tensions over poverty and inequality.

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South Africa’s players will want to give their country something to smile about and shift the people’s focus away from what are very serious troubles. Who can blame the players for wanting to? After the rioting it does seem as if the hope ushered in by Mandela is in need of a jump start, or worse, CPR.

To get back to playing matters and away from politics, South Africa are also defending a World Cup Crown. If they defeat the Lions, they have to go down as one of the best sides ever in modern times? This is due to them also being Rugby Championship winners when they were last able to contest it in 2019 and Rugby World Cup winners, and potentially, conquerors of the Lions.

Racism and Black Lives Matter

The Springboks and the Lions have a history and background tied up in these issues. Both teams are trying to move towards a more accepting and tolerant future. For that, they must be commended. South Africa is moving away from its apartheid past, but there is still plenty of work to do. Britain has it’s uncomfortable colonial past (long ago, and the much more recent past) to try and make sense of before we can properly move forward. Might a series played hard, but fair with an exciting conclusion give people hope, even if it is fleeting?

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