When Canon George Ogilvie became headmaster of Diocesan College in Cape Town in 1861, he introduced the game of football, as played at Winchester College. This version of football, which included handling of the ball, is seen as the beginnings of rugby in South Africa. Soon, the young gentlemen of Cape Town joined in and the first match in South Africa took place between the "Officers of the Army" and the "Gentlemen of the Civil Service" at Green Point in Cape Town on 23 August 1862 and ended as a 0-0 draw. The local press reported a series of football matches between scratch sides "Town v Suburbs" or "Home v Colonial-born".
Around 1875, rugby began to be played in the Cape colony; the same year the first rugby (as opposed to Winchester football) club, Hamilton, was formed in Sea Point, Cape Town. Former England international William Henry Milton arrived in Cape Town in 1878. He joined the Villagers club and started playing and preaching rugby. By the end of that year Cape Town had all but abandoned the Winchester game in favour of rugby. British colonists helped spread the game through the Eastern Cape, Natal and along the gold and diamond routes to Kimberley and Johannesburg. British troops would also play a key role in spreading the game throughout the country.
Rugby union was introduced to South Africa by British colonists and began to be played in the Cape colony around 1875. In 1883, the Stellenbosch club was formed in the predominantly Boer farming district outside Cape Town and rugby was enthusiastically adopted by the young Boer farmers. As British and Boer migrated to the interior they helped spread the game from the Cape colony through the Eastern Cape, and Natal, and along the gold and diamond routes to Kimberley and Johannesburg.
The game was strong enough in the Western Cape for the Western Province Rugby Football Union to be formed that same year; Griqualand West followed in 1886; Eastern Province in 1888; Transvaal in 1889 and in 1889 the South African Rugby Board was founded. Kimberley was the founding city of the South Africa Rugby Football Board in 1889.
The first-ever tour of the British Isles by a team from southern Africa (drawing on players from the then independent republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and the British colonies of the Cape and Natal) took place in 1891, with the trip financially underwritten by (the British arch imperialist) Cecil Rhodes of the Cape and (the resolutely Boer) President Kruger of the Transvaal Republic. Seven years later Britain was at war with the Boer republics, and during the Boer war British troops would play a key role in entrenching the game throughout the country, and games amongst the Boer population in prisoner of war camps popularised the game further.
From the early years the game had been enthusiastically and passionately adopted by coloured and black populations in the Cape colony, and the Eastern Cape in particular, but rugby organisation (under the South Africa Coloured Rugby Board formed in 1896) and teams were kept segregated with discrimination against black and coloured players and little government funding.
Even before the 1948 elections in South Africa in which the apartheid government came to power and legislated systematically along racial lines, foreign sporting teams going to South Africa had felt it necessary to exclude non-white players. New Zealand rugby teams in particular had done this, and the exclusion of George Nepia and Jimmy Mill from the 1928 All Blacks tour, and the dropping of "Ranji" Wilson from the New Zealand Army team nine years before that, had attracted little comment at the time.
From 1960, international criticism of apartheid in particular grew in the wake of "The Wind of Change" speech by the British Prime Minister, Macmillan, and the Sharpeville massacre near Johannesburg in South Africa. From then onward, the Springboks, perceived as prominent representatives of apartheid South Africa, were increasingly isolated internationally.
Coming shortly after the Soweto riots as it did, the 1976 All Blacks tour of South Africa attracted international condemnation and 28 countries boycotted the 1976 Summer Olympics in protest. The next year, in 1977, the Commonwealth signed the Gleneagles Agreement, which discouraged any sporting contact with South Africa. A planned 1979 Springbok tour of France was stopped by the French government, which announced that it was inappropriate for South African teams to tour France, and after the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand went ahead in defiance of the Gleneagles Agreement, South Africa was banned by the International Rugby Board from international competition until such time as apartheid ended.
From 1990 to 1994 the legal apparatus of apartheid was abolished, and in 1992 the Springboks were readmitted to international rugby. On 23 March 1992 the non-racial South African Rugby Union and the South African Rugby Board were merged to form the South African Rugby Football Union. The unified body changed its name in 2005 to the current South African Rugby Union.
SA Rugby celebrated 100 years of test rugby in 2006 and unveiled a new logo at a function at ABSA Stadium in Durban. Celebrations continued later in the year, with two tests against England at Twickenham.
According to World Rugby, South Africa has 434, 219 registered players broken down into: 157, 980 pre-teen males; 121, 879 teen males; 143, 722 senior males (total male players 423, 581); 1, 653 pre-teen females; 5, 504 teen females; 3, 481 senior females (total female players 10, 638).