Champions of the world

By the time South Africa were readmitted to international sport, two Rugby World Cups had already been completed – the inaugural event jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand in 1987, and won by the All Blacks; the follow-up competition staged in England in 1991, and claimed by another southern hemisphere nation, Australia.

The Webb Ellis Cup was rapidly becoming the game’s most sought-after silverware, and South Africa wanted a part of the action…


Rugby World Cup

This World Cup will be remembered for many things, but the most enduring image of the spectacle was not the sight of Jonah Lomu flattening English players, or Chester Williams scoring four tries against Samoa. It’s of president Nelson Mandela handing the Webb Ellis Cup to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar following a tense 15-12 win by the home team over New Zealand.

That simple act of passing a piece of silverware to a victorious captain, both parties clad in identical Springbok jerseys, resonated across the world. The symbolism of the country’s first black president awarding the ultimate rugby prize to a blond Afrikaner instantly told a story of how far South Africa had come in the five years since Mandela’s release after 27 years as a political prisoner.

Nothing the Springboks have done since, nothing they achieve in the future, and no prizes earned prior to 1995 will ever compare to winning the World Cup for the first time, at the first time of asking. Rugby World Cup 1995 set the benchmark for all future tournaments, which will all fall short by comparison simply because the tournament occurred at a serendipitous time in South Africa’s complicated history. And central to the drama was arguably the most beloved statesman of the later 20th and early 21st centuries. Future tournaments can hardly expect to compare at that level.

Mandela’s charm, his political nous and intuitive understanding of how the tournament could be used to unite a country – as well as the team’s commitment to winning the title – were separate threads that all came together on that crisp June 24 afternoon.

Mandela had lobbied his own African National Congress (ANC) colleagues to support the Springboks and endorse the staging of the tournament. He had repelled the desire of cabinet members to get rid of the Springbok emblem, while at the same time leading a country that was still coming to terms with itself. 

After months of cajoling dissenters and placating white South Africans with constant reassurances that they were wanted and needed in the new South Africa, Mandela’s symbolic gesture to wear a replica of Pienaar’s jersey to the final was a political and human masterstroke. In an instant, fears and prejudices crumbled, and when the Boks fulfilled their end of the bargain by winning, South Africans had undergone a subtle but irreversible shifting of minds.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I think that Nelson Mandela would pitch up to the final wearing a Springbok over his heart,” Pienaar said in a TV interview in 2011. “When he walked into our change-room to say good luck to us, and he turned around and my number was on his back, it was an amazing feeling. Here was a man who spent 27 years in jail and had fought against rugby, but came out wearing a Springbok on his heart showing he was proud to be a South African. That gave us an edge.“The atmosphere at the 1995 Rugby World Cup was amazing. The whole tournament just had this sense of electricity about it. People were excited to welcome the world to South Africa and, through the course of the six weeks, a nation changed. It was amazing to see how more and more black people started supporting the Springboks. When we got to the final everyone was proud of ‘their’ team.” Much happened – some things planned, others not – to contribute towards the Springboks’ success and the success the tournament had on bonding the disparate racial groups within South Africa. There was the prominent sight of Mandela in a Bok jersey, but there was also the more subtle effort of the players to learn how to sing the Xhosa part of the new anthem, Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika. It helped them live up to their cleverly worded slogan:

‘One team, one nation’.

There were the predominantly white crowds, who took up Shosholoza, the old mine workers’ song, and sang it for the Springboks, connecting the old and the new South Africa in an unlikely way. As skilfully as Mandela moulded the tournament to his political will, he couldn’t control results. The Springboks were not guaranteed the title because of the stature of their president, or because they enjoyed home-ground advantage. They had to earn it on the field.

Hosting the Rugby World Cup

Less than 15 months after its first fully democratic elections had taken place, South Africa staged the biggest sporting event in its history at relatively short notice. There was much scepticism and many believed that the country couldn’t pull it off. It was a more innocent time and there was no bidding for the tournament hosting rights; the decision to stage the competition in South Africa had been taken at an International Rugby Board (IRB) meeting in Wellington, New Zealand in 1992.

With Mandela’s release in 1990, the unbanning of the ANC and rapid political change all leading inexorably towards a peaceful transition of power (although in 1992, that wasn’t a foregone conclusion), rugby’s leaders wasted little time in deciding to take rugby’s third World Cup to one of its traditional powerhouses.

Former Natal Rugby Union president Nic Labuschagne was a key figure on the board of the fledgling Rugby World Cup Limited (RWCL). He, along with Professor Fritz Eloff, lobbied on behalf of South Africa, and rugby being rugby, called in some old debts to ensure that the tournament was awarded to South Africa. With three years to prepare, then-Transvaal Rugby Union president Louis Luyt was tasked with making sure the tournament went off without a hitch. At that stage in their history (1992), the Springboks had yet to play a Test in a post-apartheid South Africa, and had little understanding of where their rugby stood in international terms. South Africans were typically bullish that the Springboks would return to Test rugby and immediately beat allcomers, including New Zealand and newly-crowned 1991 world champions Australia. 

At the same meeting that confirmed South Africa as hosts of the 1995 tournament, a hastily-drawn-up Test schedule was put together for the Springboks’ official return to the international arena. The All Blacks and Australia would tour South Africa in August 1992, followed by a Springbok tour to France and Britain that November. It was hardly a gentle return to the sharp end of the game.

Former Bok lock and Northern Transvaal stalwart John Williams was appointed as the first post-isolation coach, with flyhalf Naas Botha, at the age of 34, tasked with captaining the side. The All Blacks won that first Test 27-24, and a week later the Wallabies trounced the over-confident Boks 26-3 in a Newlands mudbath. The reality of how far behind the rest of the world the Springboks had fallen was brutally exposed. 

Legendary Natal coach Ian McIntosh replaced Gerrie Sonnekus, who was appointed to succeed Williams in early 1993, but never took up the post. McIntosh lasted 18 months and was fired after the Boks suffered a 2-0 series loss in New Zealand in 1994. That ushered in the quietly-spoken but highly respected Transvaal coach Kitch Christie.

By the time he started, the Boks had played 17 post-isolation Tests, lost 10, drawn two and secured a paltry

five wins. Christie had eight months and limited time with the players to ensure that the Springboks didn’t embarrass themselves as hosts of the World Cup.

Winning the World Cup was ultimately a staggering and towering achievement considering the base the Boks came from. But the team’s core had been forged in the Currie Cup and Super 10 tournaments in the guise of Transvaal, under Christie and the captaincy of Francois Pienaar. The coach simply took what worked for him at provincial level – supreme fitness, excellent defence, strong set-pieces, a core leadership group, and a simple but effective game plan – and transposed it onto the Springboks with unrivalled success. Christie remains the only Springbok coach with a 100 per cent winning record – with 14 victories in as many outings. But for ill health, he would have coached the Boks for longer; his short tenure was yet another happy accident of timing in a crucial period of South African history. Similarly, Pienaar’s statesman-like demeanour and grasp of the political significance of the tournament for South Africa, the respect he held for Mandela and vice versa, and his obvious leadership qualities were another vital piece of the jigsaw that fell into place.

The Boks astounded the world by beating the reigning world champions Australia in their opening match to ensure a smoother path in the knockout stages. They added the relatively straightforward scalps of Romania and Canada, and comfortably pushed Western Samoa aside in the quarter-final, before winning a bizarre semi-final in soaking conditions in Durban against France to set up a date with the All Blacks in the final.

Games were played across the country and, besides the home team’s performances, there were other wonderful (and also tragic) moments that shaped the competition. On the negative side, Ivorian wing Max Brito suffered a severe neck injury in a game against Tonga, and was paralysed as a result. It was a freak accident that loaned perspective to the sport.

Lomu, the destructive wing who stood 1.95m tall and weighed 118kg, became the most feared man in rugby thanks to his bulldozing power and exceptional speed, while the All Blacks’ all-out attacking game thrived on the firm, fast Highveld fields. In Bloemfontein the All Blacks powered to a world record 145-17 win over a hapless Japan, scoring 21 tries in the process. The lights went out in Port Elizabeth before the Boks-Canada match, and in the same game, SA hooker James Dalton, Canadian skipper Gareth Rees and prop Rod Snow were red-carded – ending their participation in the tournament. A flooded pitch in Durban for the semi-final between the hosts and France nearly led to the cancellation of the game, which would have meant elimination for the Springboks because they had a worse disciplinary record than the French, thanks to Dalton’s red card.

In the end though, it was a story about South Africa, about how rugby in specific and sport in general had the power to heal a nation and alter preconceptions. The goodwill that RWC 1995 brought to South Africa might not have burned with the same intensity and joy in the weeks and months after the tournament’s end, but it had changed the country for the better. Pienaar and Mandela, who had met for the first time a little more than a year before the final at the president’s office, came face-to-face again on the small podium in the Ellis Park gloaming. This time it wasn’t tea that the president offered the captain, but a little gold trophy that changed a nation and mended fences that no political dialogue could have achieved in years of negotiation.

South Africa 27  –  Australia 18 

May 25, 1995, Newlands, Cape Town

Although the final is the match that’s most remembered, the opening game against Australia was arguably the most vital of the tournament. Winning meant that the Boks took the ‘high road’ to the knockout stages; but more importantly, it gave the players, and the nation, belief that they could win the World Cup.

President Mandela attended the match and received a warm greeting from the largely white crowd, which struck the right chord for the remainder of the tournament. Christie was cagey before the match, not revealing his starting XV until the last possible moment. It was widely accepted that he would start with either Joel Stransky or Hennie le Roux at flyhalf, with Japie Mulder and Brendan Venter in the midfield. But the canny Christie opted to play Le Roux at inside centre alongside Mulder, with Stransky at flyhalf, giving the side two playmakers and two kicking options. Christie had used the formation in the Boks’ only pre-tournament warm-up Test, against Samoa at Ellis Park, which the Boks won 60-8. Stransky’s performance, in hindsight, was an indication of what was to come in the final at Ellis Park six weeks later. Against Australia he scored in every possible way (a try, a conversion, penalties and a drop-goal, totalling 22 points).

The build-up to the match was superb, preceded by a vibrant and colourful opening ceremony on a warm autumn day, which set the tone for a fantastic six weeks. Australia were loaded with 1991 World Cup winners, such as flyhalf Michael Lynagh, wing David Campese, lock John Eales and centre Jason Little. It was truly a golden era of Wallaby rugby, and few people outside of the immediate Bok camp gave the home team a chance of winning. As it turned out though, it was without doubt the Springboks’ best performance of the tournament. Aside from line-out problems, they dominated every aspect of the match, spurred on by a raucous 48,000 crowd at Newlands and millions more watching on TV. The Bok scrum had the edge; and in a tactical and goal-kicking battle between the vastly experienced Lynagh and the less-seasoned Stransky, the South African edged that duel as well.

But for the majority of the first half it was grim Springbok defence that set the tone for the match. Australia were made to work much harder for every point than they expected – which took its toll later. Three Stransky penalties to two from Lynagh gave the Boks a slender 9-6 lead as the first half moved into the final five minutes. At this point the Wallabies strung together a multi-phase movement that eventually stretched the organised and tireless Bok defence to breaking point. 

It was Lynagh who delivered the blow, spotting a hole in the defence and cutting his way to the line for the tournament’s opening try. He converted and Australia led 13-9. This was supposed to be the moment when the reigning world champions would go into top gear, having dealt with early Springbok pressure, and simply pull away. The opposite happened.

Almost immediately after Lynagh’s try, the Boks made a rare foray into the Wallaby 22. Hooker James Dalton made a telling break. The ball was worked left to wing Pieter Hendriks, in a one-on-one match-up with Campese. The Bok wing feinted an inside break and then swerved left, with a startling change of pace that left Campese for dead. Hendriks punched the air after beating the decorated Wallaby, and the try gave the Boks a 14-13 half-time lead. That crucial try shifted the momentum of the match irreversibly the way of the Springboks.

From the restart the Wallabies were under pressure and Stransky made it count. He landed a penalty in the first minute of the second half and then slotted a drop-goal six minutes later to stretch the lead to seven points. Australia were pinned deep in their own territory for much of the half, and only superb defence denied the Boks more tries. Eventually though, the pressure told, and it was Stransky who slipped over from close range for the try that settled the contest in the 64th minute.

A late Phil Kearns try added some respectability to the score, but the damage to Australia had been inflicted, as they went on to fall to England in the quarter-finals.

For the Springboks and South Africa, the journey had only just begun.

The Final

South Africa 15  –  New Zealand 12

Final  June 24, 1995, Ellis Park, Johannesburg

The pre-match entertainment featured a spectacular South African Airways Boeing 747, piloted by captain Laurie Kay, doing a low-altitude fly-by over Ellis Park that both thrilled and stunned the capacity 63,000 crowd. Nearly three hours later, the match ended in an even more thrilling way when Stransky’s 93rd-minute drop-goal sailed over to give the Springboks a 15-12 lead, and ultimately the title. This was the first time in World Cup history that a match had gone to extra time. The scores were locked at 9-9 in regular time and the added 20 minutes (10 minutes each way) were excruciating, not only for fans at the game, but for people across the country, in every community, watching on television.

Pages from The Official Springbok Opus

When referee Ed Morrison’s final whistle eventually blew, and the Springboks gathered around for an impromptu prayer near the All Black goal-line, the stadium and country erupted. People from Soweto to Sandton and from Khayelitsha to Clifton took to the streets to celebrate, chanting “Nelson, Nelson” and “Bokke, Bokke” in equal measure. President Mandela’s vision of uniting a nation, of breaking down barriers using the very game and the badge that had been a symbol of oppression, had become reality. 

Sitting in the stands that day were two South African teenagers. One from a middle-class white family and one from a middle-class coloured family. Both had dreams of becoming rugby players. What they felt and witnessed that afternoon had a profound influence on their lives and careers, and inspired them to work harder, and be better. At RWC 2007 in France, hooker John Smit would captain the Springboks to their second world title and wing

Bryan Habana would play a key role in that success. Habana would go on to emulate Jonah Lomu’s 1999 record by finishing as the tournament’s leading try-scorer, with eight, and Smit would follow in Pienaar’s footsteps by receiving the trophy from South Africa’s president – in his case, Thabo Mbeki. But in 1995 it was all about Pienaar’s men and President Mandela. The perfect storm led to the perfect result.

Even when rumours surfaced that the All Blacks had suffered some sort of poisoning (conspiracies abound that they were the victims of a carefully orchestrated plan) – and clearly there were members of their squad who weren’t well – nothing could dampen the mood of the country. Open-top bus parades followed, as this almost exclusively white team of rugby players, led by Pienaar, became heroes and a symbol for hope for the entire country.

In the build-up to the match the talk had been of how the Springboks could contain juggernaut All Black wing Lomu, a freakish athlete who had scored seven tries in the tournament, including a thundering four against England in the semi-final. Lomu had literally run over England as New Zealand posted a 45-29 win. With Lomu leading the charge, the All Blacks seemed unstoppable, but the Springboks showed that courage, technique and organisation on defence could unsettle even the best teams and players.

Christie devised a plan that Lomu’s opposite number, James Small, would “use the touchline”, forcing Lomu to come infield where the covering Bok defence could cut him down. It worked, but there were also moments when it didn’t go according to script. In the 12th minute Lomu burst down the centre of the field and only had the sweeping scrumhalf Joost van der Westhuizen to beat.

The halfback bravely and cleverly threw himself low at Lomu, taking him around the calves. As the giant started to stumble, Bok No.8 Mark Andrews tackled him from behind and the threat was snuffed out. 

“To measure yourself, under that pressure, that’s what it’s all about, that’s why you play the game,” Pienaar said in a TV programme produced by the IRB to promote the 2011 World Cup.

“When you reach the final of a knockout competition, it’s about dealing with the pressure. It wasn’t something that was daunting; it was something that was incredibly exciting.” 

Stransky and All Black flyhalf Andrew Mehrtens swapped two penalties apiece in the opening quarter before Stransky put over the first of his two drop-goals late in the first half. Mehrtens landed a 54th-minute drop to tie the scores at 9-9. In the final minute of regular time, Mehrtens, 30 metres out but almost directly in front of the uprights, had a chance to win the game. His attempted drop-goal sailed inches wide and the match went to extra time. First blood went to the All Blacks when they were awarded a long-range penalty, two minutes into the added period. Mehrtens slotted it. Stransky replied with another penalty to level at 12-12. By this stage Christie’s murderous pre-tournament fitness regime was paying dividends.

The Boks looked stronger and fresher. They totally dominated the second period of extra time and, even after Stransky landed his famous drop-goal from 35 metres out, the Springboks still had seven minutes to hold out. They forced their way into All Black territory again and won another penalty. This time Stransky missed, but New Zealand could not escape their own 22. The home team wound down the clock to secure a dream result.

“We didn’t do it for 60,000 South Africans, but for 43 million South Africans,” Pienaar said in an on-field interview directly after the match.“It’s almost impossible to describe the feelings that I had when the final whistle blew,” Pienaar said in 2011. “It was a very emotional moment, and I dropped to my knees to say a quick prayer. Before I realised it, everybody was around me. All the tension of the six weeks and everything that led to the final just came to the fore.“I was very proud of the team and very proud to be a Springbok, but nothing will eclipse the moment when Madiba handed the Webb Ellis trophy to me, and the words he spoke were incredibly special for me.”Mandela thanked Pienaar for what the Boks had done for the country, but Pienaar countered, “Mr President, we could never have done what you have done for South Africa.”

“We didn’t do it for 60,000 South Africans, but for 43 million South Africans,”

-Francois Peinaar