Madiba had the midas touch at the 1995 Rugby World Cup
Tomorrow will be the 25th anniversary of the World Cup opener at Newlands, Cape Town.
What a day, what an occasion and what a memory!
I knew on that day how blessed I was to be at Newlands and seated in the press box.
Newlands was the ground at which I had stood, as an eight-year-old scholar on the Railway Stand side, and watched Robbie Blair kick the angled conversion for Western Province’s win in 1976 against the All Blacks.
Newlands was the ground at which, in 1992, I had reported on the world champion Wallabies humiliate the Springboks 26-3 on a cold and typically wet Cape Town winter’s day.
Now the champions of the world were back at Newlands, but everything was different to the devastation of 1992, when all that glittered was Aussie gold.
The sun was shining and green dominated gold in the packed stands.
I’d been going to Newlands from the age of eight and I had never felt such patriotism among South African rugby supporters. Newlands is the home of Western Province, but on the 25th May, 1995, it was transformed into an ode to the Springboks.
I’d sat in the very same press box a month before and experienced the World Cup Springboks, playing as the SA President’s XV, being jeered and Western Province flyhalf Joel Stransky being cussed because he kicked the late drop goal to beat Western Province 25-23.
That was before the rest of the world’s rugby elite and a few minnows arrived in South Africa and that was before the late Nelson Mandela officially welcomed the participants and a global audience to the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Madiba’s touch would be midas in how he turned the Springbok green into match-winning gold.
Madiba had visited the Springboks at their Silvermine training session in what would prove the most decisive day in their pre-match preparations. It was at this session that the late President of South Africa, momentarily, turned a rugby team into the country’s greatest unifiers.
The players were different after President Mandela’s visit. Their demeanor was upbeat, they oozed a confidence that was in contrast with the results of the previous three years and they spoke of what beating Australia would mean for the country.
They beamed with pride at being Springboks. I hadn’t seen such ownership of a Springbok jersey among players. The provincial identity of players, in the week building up to the opening match against Australia, was absent.
Kitch Christie was the Springbok coach and not the man also in charge of Transvaal. Francois Pienaar was the national captain and not the leader of the domestic champions Transvaal.
Players spoke with reverence about the occasion and of the importance of winning because victory against Australia would mean a far easier path to a potential final. Defeat would mean playing the All Blacks or England in a quarter-final at Newlands in Cape Town.
It was a good one to avoid at that stage of the tournament. Western Samoa, at Ellis Park, in a quarter-final, was far more appealing.
Christie’s Boks had thrashed the Samoans 60-8 six weeks before the start of the World Cup and Christie had entrusted 12 of the starting XV to front the Wallabies. Andre Joubert, James Dalton and Pieter Hendriks were the changes, with Joubert and Dalton having missed the Samoan match because of injury and Hendricks replacing the injured Chester Williams.
The Boks were in the best physical shape, united in their resolve and convinced that there was no way the Wallabies could win.
This wasn’t the Wallabies of 1992 or the Wallabies who had won the three-Test series against the Boks in 1993. The Wallabies captain Nick Farr-Jones had retired and Australia in 1995 were decidedly weaker without Farr-Jones.
The Wallabies had arrived in South Africa walking and wounded. Several of their frontline players were battling injury and were physically not at their peak, and opinions were divided as to whether many of the 1991 World Cup-winning side were still good enough to defend the title.
History shows that they weren’t.
History also shows that the Springboks were good enough, but it didn’t need hindsight to back a Springboks victory.
Those of us who were privy to both camps could see the absolute contrasts. One team hoped they would win and the other knew they would win. The hopefuls were Australia because their players couldn’t speak with conviction, such was the uncertainty when it came to fitness and form.
There was no such second-guessing among the Springboks.
There was also no arrogance.
Christie had a plan and each player had the physical preparation and mental strength to believe in this plan.
Wallabies scrumhalf George Gregan had only played six Tests and the Boks had made it known they viewed him vulnerable because of inexperience. Dalton and Joost van der Westhuizen were tasked with being Gregan’s minder and the more they hassled and hurried Gregan, the greater the disruption to Australia’s free-flowing game.
Australia’s greatest wing and record try-scorer David Campese was also on his last legs. Campese, even in his prime, was never strong defensively but with his pace down, the plan was always to create enough space to make Hendriks’s pace a try-scoring factor.
History also tells us this worked.
Hendriks scored the most spectacular of tries, with his acceleration and swerve, rendering Campese as effective as a lamppost with a blown bulb.
Stransky would score a try late in the match and add the conversion to end with 22 points in the 27-18 victory.
Newlands, en-masse, erupted when Stransky scored, just as it did when Madiba emerged from the tunnel to officially declare the World Cup open.
The chants of ‘Nelson Nelson Nelson’ ring is as loud for me today.
I get as emotional now as I did 25-years-ago when I heard a crowd, tellingly white, give South Africa’s first black President a standing ovation.
Green was the colour of the day at Newlands on the 25th May 1995, and gold was the currency of the victorious Springboks.
* 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.