OPINION | Why 2019 Springboks can unite a nation
Cape Town - The Springboks, settled in Japan after a 25-hour flight, are now staring the 2019 Rugby World Cup in the face.
A warm-up clash against the tournament hosts awaits in Kumagaya on Friday, but the main event happens on September 21 when the Boks and All Blacks meet in what is easily the marquee fixture of the group stages.
The anticipation building up to that battle is immense, with one of world rugby's most historic rivalries now well and truly restored.
The last three clashes between the sides have resulted in a win each and a draw, and there is nothing to separate them.
The Boks have regained the trust of the nation by winning their first Rugby Championship since 2009 (then Tri-Nations), and they now set foot in Japan knowing that supporters back home genuinely believe - and almost expect - them to go the distance at the tournament.
That belief was not there in 2015 when the Boks bombed to Japan in Brighton, in 2016 when they lost to Italy in Florence or in 2017 when they slipped to No 7 in the world rankings and looked a million miles behind the All Blacks.
What Rassie Erasmus has done over the last two international seasons, however, has resulted in a turnaround few could have predicted.
They have taken all the doubt and cynicism - most of which was justified when talking about this team - and turned it into unbridled optimism.
When the Boks belt out their national anthem in Yokohama in two weekends time and then face up to the All Black haka, a country will unite in their belief that anything is possible.
We have seen it before, in 1995 and then in 2007, and there is no reason that the Bok class of 2019 cannot lift a third Webb Ellis trophy.
More importantly, however, is that the Boks have earned this belief with a first-choice side that is more representative than any seen at a previous World Cup.
There can, thankfully, be no 'quota' conversations this time around.
It was former sports minister Fikile Mbalula who demanded, not long after the 2015 World Cup, that the Boks take a squad made up of at least 50% players of colour to Japan 2019.
That hasn't happened, and there are 12 players of colour in the 31-man squad (39%), compared to the nine Heyneke Meyer took to England in 2015.
That might not seem like great progress over four years, but a look at what the starting line-up could be for the All Blacks opener challenges that.
Siya Kolisi, Tendai Mtawarira, Bongi Mbonambi, Trevor Nyakane, Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi could, potentially, all line up together.
Factor in Cheslin Kolbe, Damian de Allende and Herschel Jantjies, and the Boks have no less than nine players of colour expected to be in the matchday squad for that first All Blacks match.
To put that in perspective, Meyer fielded just four players of colour in the matchday squad for the 2015 semi-final loss to New Zealand in London.
Transformation often gets a raw deal because it doesn't happen at the rate we would all like to see, but under Erasmus the Boks are looking increasingly a side representative of this country.
The significance of Kolisi being chosen as the man to lead cannot be understated.
Selecting Kolisi as captain was something that former coach Allister Coetzee opted against, but Erasmus has backed him at every opportunity, and it is a decision that has been welcomed by the South African rugby-loving public.
A natural leader, Kolisi's story is well-documented, but it remains powerful.
A kid from Zwide was never supposed to captain the Springboks. In this country, things like that simply don't happen.
Yet, here Kolisi stands, leading a nation into war in a sport that has historically belonged to the white man.
The obstacles that he has overcome to make it to the very top is something that every South African, regardless of race or class, can appreciate.
"I really think an individual can change South Africa and sometimes you've got to do something as simple as living your life and fighting for your dreams. Sometimes, you just have to tell your story."
Those are Kolisi's emotional words in an advert that SuperSport is currently running, and it about sums it up.
This is a Bok team that the entire country can buy into. It represents our unique society more accurately than ever before and, crucially, it can be the best in the world.
The Springboks winning the World Cup will always be celebrated, but seeing Siyamthanda Kolisi lift the trophy in the No 6 jersey on November 2 and understanding just what that means to so many people?
That would be nothing short of magical ...
Lloyd Burnard is a journalist at Sport24 and the former Sports Editor of The Witness newspaper ...
Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.