It was a strange way to launch the most controversial test jersey in the history of South African rugby. One Saturday afternoon in late October, our sister publication Rucked Magazine posted a tweet with a picture of a new Springbok shirt that had appeared on the Springboks official online store earlier that day.
Details were sparse, we didn’t even know who designed the shirt, but it was written there in black and white on the product listing: “This Commemorative jersey will be used in one End of Year Tour Match.” This wasn’t a training shirt or a warm-up jersey. This was a bona fide Springbok shirt that would be worn in an actual match.
The reaction from a lot of people was one of disbelief – after all, the promotional pic, with the model grinning in his matching Bok bucket hat, did give the vibe that nobody was taking things too seriously. But the fact remained that the listing seemingly made it unequivocal – one of South Africa’s November internationals would see the World Champs run out on a field wearing a jersey that a significant proportion of the South African fanbase and media absolutely hated.
All of which brings us to Tuesday – 10 days after Rucked first showed that jersey to the world, and a week after ASICS formally launched the jersey that we would later learn was created by Afro-futuristic fashion designer Mzukisi Mbane. After 10 days of hot takes and scathing editorials, a statement from SA Rugby has walked that promise back.
Instead of being worn in a test match this November, the shirt will instead be worn as a warm-up jersey ahead of the Boks’ three tests against Wales, Scotland and England, with a vague allusion that the jersey will in fact see the field in 2022.
“We had planned to wear what we call the ‘collab’ jersey on the November tour last year, but that opportunity has not arisen this time around. However, it will appear in 2022 and will get a first ‘public airing’ before the next three tests.” said Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby.
All in all, it’s a rather unsatisfactory explanation. We have no doubt that SA Rugby’s claim that they were originally planning to wear this jersey last year is true – the comments from designer Mbane on Rucked’s instagram post imply this has been a project long in development, for one.
What’s more, South Africa were originally scheduled to play Ireland last November before the pandemic intervened – as the only true colour clash the Boks have (at least for those of us who don’t have some kind of colour vision deficiency) would have been the natural opportunity for the Boks to volunteer to change their kit, even though test rugby usually sees the home side changing in event of a clash.
But there was nothing seemingly stopping the Boks choosing to wear their change shirt this autumn – with the match against Scotland presenting the most obvious chance to minimise clashes, though Wales would have been another option (England would likely want to wear their home shirt against the World Champs, which is far too close to the collab colour-wise). So what gives?
The Boks and ASICS have some form in this department of course. Back in 2017 they revealed a red alternate jersey to mark the 25th anniversary of the rainbow nation, but the outcry against the design was such that despite it being planned to be worn several times over the season, including in the autumn, but ended up being only worn once, against Argentina in the Rugby Championship.
Is history repeating itself? Has the polarised reaction from the South African public and media led the Boks and ASICS to panic a little, and shelve the jersey so it can follow in the footsteps of the red jersey and be trotted out for a much less high-profile fixture instead?
Ultimately, this feels like a lesson in the dangers of pushing the design envelope of test jerseys. Rugby is an extremely traditionalist sport, with much of the fanbase, media and governance still actively pining for a return to a bygone amateur era. It’s a mindset that often provokes an outpouring of hostility at even minor changes to anything, including kits, and it makes the job of a test shirt designer pretty thankless.
Whether SA Rugby have pulled this jersey because of the reaction or not, there can be little doubt that they botched the launch in a manner that always had them on the back foot. It’s clear that ASICS and SA Rugby wanted to create a bold, exciting jersey that got players and fans excited in the way that ASICS and Rugby Australia have done with their various First Nations designs.
However, Rugby Australia handled the launch of what was originally the ‘Indigenous’ jersey masterfully – putting the launch in the hands of the Wallabies only Indigenous player, Kurtley Beale, and then getting fans on board by carefully explaining the story and purpose of the jersey, allowing it to evolve from a one-off design to something that has been embraced by the Wallabies and their fans.
Even after they formally launched the jersey, ASICS and SA Rugby seemed to struggle to communicate the purpose and story of this design – an interview with Mbane spoke of how the jersey’s design was, “Very much rooted in my African heritage. The brand’s aesthetic is very afro-futuristic. It’s a mix of the original traditional African with elements of the future.”
Nothing about the jersey’s launch and marketing really reflected that in a way that captured the imagination of the South African public. If you want to push the design envelope in test rugby, you have to nail your launch message and your storytelling, and hope that it works.
SA Rugby and ASICS messed this part up, and the wave of negativity around the jersey soon became more of a story than the jersey itself, and within 10 days it was gone. The most controversial Springbok jersey ever had the potential to flip the script on test rugby’s kit traditionalism, instead it may well be relegated to a footnote.