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Boks fans light up city of love

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The Springboks were crowned world champions at the 2023 Rugby World Cup, but the team’s fans are also the best in the world, says South African Leonard Rovetti, who attended the showpiece in France.

“[Paris] was full of green and gold. Wherever you walked, there were Boks fans,” says Rovetti, the joint chief executive of t3 Plastic Packaging, who witnessed the Springboks triumph 12-11 against New Zealand in the final at the Stade de France in Paris on 28 October. “Boks supporters bring a lot of gees to the stadium. The atmosphere was unreal.”

Marc Lubner, the group chief executive of Afrika Tikkun, says rain didn’t dampen “the unbelievable South African spirit in the crowd”, for which there was a full capacity turnout of more than 80 000.

For Lubner, “sharing the experience of the World Cup was a life moment that I wasn’t going to miss”.

Having been in London for his cousin’s wedding, he decided to go to France for the Springboks’ semi-final against England. It meant that he missed the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards on 22 October.

“The awards were critical for our community at this trying time, and I wanted to be a part of this community coming together,” Lubner says. Though it was a tough call to not be there, being at the World Cup was also “a great opportunity to share a meaningful time with my son who lives in London”.

Similarly, attorney Ian Levitt’s main reason for going to France for the final was “to spend quality time with my son and brother-in-law. We’re all very close and love watching sport, especially the Springboks. It was a terrific experience to be with my family at such a historic match.”

He described the final as “mind-blowing but terribly tense”.

“We thought it would be a walkover for South Africa,” Lubner says, “but it turned out to be a nail-biter. We sat alongside Marco Van Embden and the Cape Town crew, which added spice and expert input on how the Boks should play.”

“The game was another display of sheer guts and determination by two teams who gave their all,” Lubner says. “The Boks came out at the start tackling like demons and were clearly dominant. They were a team to be proud of, and the crowd was equally dynamic in constant roars of ‘Bokke! Bokke! Bokke!’

“The second half was less easy, as the All Blacks found their form and flair, winning most lineouts and even heeling against the head a few times. Their flair when the ball moved down the line was scary for us and if not for Pieter-Steph du Toit, we could have had a lot more challenges as he stopped that play with ferocious tackles.”

After the game, “a large group of South African fans celebrated at a bar next to the stadium until 02:00 or 03:00”, Grant Friedman, the director of Africrest Properties, recalls.

By winning the World Cup, the Springboks became only the second team to defend the title and the first to win it four times. Friedman points out that in this year’s tournament, the Springboks played the other top six teams in the latest World Rugby rankings, meaning the side had arguably a tougher run compared to the 2019 triumph in Japan.

There were loads of South Africans and expats at the World Cup. “The support is truly remarkable,” says Rovetti, who was part of a group of 35 South Africans spectating the semi-final and final. “We stand in unity for our beautiful country.”

Besides the rugby, Friedman enjoyed going to various restaurants in France and walking down the Champs-Élysées.

Rovetti enjoyed the French culture. “A World Cup element brings a lot of energy to the city and is an amazing experience,” he says.

Auctioneer Ariella Kuper, who recently became the first SA20 female auctioneer, and her husband joined her close friend, 1995 Springbok World Cup-winning Captain Francois Pienaar, and several other friends from the start of this year’s tournament. Kuper went to the Chabad in the Marais and Tournelles Synagogue on Shabbat mornings.

“The Tournelles Synagogue is the most spectacular shul I’ve ever been to,” she says. “In spite of fear about antisemitism given current world events, there was a Barmitzvah with 200 people this past Shabbat. Other Cape Town friends went to the Friday service at Chabad Champs-Élysées. We all made an effort to stand up proudly and attend shul to daven for Israel – and perhaps partially also for South African rugby!”

While in France, Kuper also enjoyed the exhibition at Art Basel Paris; seeing artwork by late Jewish American artist Mark Rothko; and exploring the Louvre, Musee D’Orsay, Commerce de Bourse, and the Seine on a Bateaux Parisien cruise. “Paris really is the city of lights, art, culture, and cuisine,” she says.

Comparing the 2007 World Cup – also in France – to this year’s edition, Levitt says the latter was better organised “with a lot of security personnel which made people feel safe”. Rovetti hasn’t missed a World Cup final since the New Zealand edition in 2011. “Tokyo and Paris were really incredible, as we won both back-to-back,” he says.

“Japan as hosts were phenomenal in their humility and support of South Africa once they were out themselves,” Kuper says, “even giving tickets to true Boks fans who had saved up and flown over. France exhibited less of this energy as host but the atmosphere from global fans was spectacular. We even improvised some stellar choral lyrics on every train or metro ride, ensuring a true sense of ubuntu. I guess sport does unite, as Francois Pienaar said so aptly in 1995.

“From a security aspect, there were gendarme and police all over given the 7 October horror and subsequent events. As a Jew, you certainly were aware. That said, none of us experienced any evidence of antisemitism. Friends even shared photos of their sons laying tefillin in the streets.”

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