Birth pangs of ‘One Team, One Nation’
Provincialism was a hangover from South African rugby’s international isolation. South African rugby supporters related to a province more than a country. The biggest matches in South Africa for a decade involved Northern Transvaal playing Western Province.
There was no love lost between players from Northern Transvaal and Western Province. Equally, there was little affection when it came to players from Northern Transvaal and Transvaal. The two entities were geographic neighbours, but there was nothing neighbourly about the relationship.
The Natal and Free State players were the exception and they were popular even during the most intense provincial rivalries. Natal, historically, were not considered a traditional force and Free State always seemed to be every supporter’s second favourite team. They were a team whose players were inoffensive and they traditionally charmed because of the way they played the game.
South Africa’s international return in 1992 had been an on-field disaster. The Springboks had lost 27-24 to the All Blacks in the first home match at Ellis Park in 1992. Don’t be fooled by the three-point margin. The All Blacks led 27-10 with 5 minutes to play and South Africa’s final try would come after the final whistle.
Boasts of South Africa being good enough to have won the 1991 World Cup, had they been allowed to compete, were made to look foolish. The reality of the Springboks would be hammered home in the most painful fashion at a wet Newlands a week after the defeat against the All Blacks.
The world champion Wallabies were brutal in destroying the Springboks 26-3. It was a humiliation and at that moment every South African supporter wished for international isolation, if only for those 80 torturous minutes.
I spent the build-up covering the Wallabies preparations and experienced first-hand a team playing as a country. The Springboks were a ‘forced together’ mix and match of players who had a greater distaste for each other than they did the international opposition.
I was in the press box at Newlands that day in 1992 and it was ugly. There was glee among Cape Town-based rugby writers when Naas Botha slipped and missed a sitter of a penalty. There were even cheers from the Cape-based Western Province faithful, to the point where the support clearly favoured the Australians.
It was a bizarre occasion because it symbolised the division in South African rugby. Botha, despite wearing a green and gold jersey, was seen very much as the flyhalf from Northern Transvaal who every Province player and supporter despised. The hate came from Botha’s brilliance and the times he had kicked Province to defeat.
Provinces, in the Currie Cup, were like different rugby countries. The team culture, playing style and support base all differed, and the Springboks, in the three years prior to the hosting of the 1995 World Cup, lacked identity as a united rugby South Africa.
Results were also awful.
The Boks won just one Test in five in 1992 and were only marginally more successful in 1993. They lost a home two-Test series to France and an away three-Test series to Australia. There was a victory against Argentina, but more failure in 1994 against England at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria and against the All Blacks in New Zealand.
There was the comfort of a second Test win against England at Newlands and there was always Argentina to provide the feeling of victory.
The Springboks, come 1995, were onto their fourth national coach in Kitch Christie and he was seen more as the Transvaal coach than the Bok coach.
You had to be at Newlands on April 29, 1995, to understand the resentment towards Christie’s Springboks, at least in the Western Cape. Western Province hosted the probable World Cup Springboks, who played as the SA President’s XV and were led by Francois Pienaar. Tiaan Strauss captained Western Province and it took a last-gasp drop goal from Joel Stransky to beat WP.
Stransky was one of a handful of WP players in the President’s XV and the crowd treated him like the enemy, as they did every player in the President’s XV. The same players who a month later would represent the Springboks in South Africa’s first World Cup match at the same ground, were jeered and constantly booed.
Strauss played a blinder, but was left out of Christie’s World Cup squad, announced the next day (April 30th) at Woodstock’s Eastern Boulevaard Holiday Inn.
Christie feared Strauss’s character would threaten Pienaar’s captaincy and also disrupt a national team, whose primary strength would be the unity and familiarity of Christie and Pienaar and the core of their Transvaal team.
Strauss’s omission made for a tense press conference, following the announcement of the squad. Christie had picked 12 Transvaal players, with the Bulls (five), Western Province (4), Natal (3) and Free State (2) completing the squad of 26.
Edward Griffiths, the former Sunday Times sports editor and Springboks media liaison, introduced the World Cup squad along with the Springboks’ World Cup campaign banner of “One Team, One Nation”.
It was a slogan paraded, in that moment on the evening of April 30, with more hope than conviction and a week later there was nothing national or united when a Durban crowd booed Pienaar’s World Cup Boks as they edged Natal 27-25 in the final World Cup warm-up match.
South Africa, as a nation, wasn’t one, and the Springboks, at the start of May certainly weren’t viewed as “one team” representing this “one” nation.
South Africa, a year earlier, had experienced a first ever democratic election, with Nelson Mandela the first President of a unified South Africa.
Unity, as a word, was spoken often in 1994, but in 1995, on the eve of the Rugby World Cup, unity wasn’t something you’d have associated with the Springboks and South African rugby.
How it would all change in less than 30 days!
* Mark Keohane covered the 1995 Rugby World Cup and reported on all the Springboks matches and those involving the All Blacks, France, Australia and England.
Indepedent on Saturday