Kitch Christie’s decision to deploy Mark Andrews at No 8 was 'ballsy'. Picture: African News Ageny (ANA)
Kitch Christie’s decision to deploy Mark Andrews at No 8 was 'ballsy'. Picture: African News Ageny (ANA)

The Glory of '95: Kitch Christie had the courage of his convictions

By Jacques van der Westhuyzen Time of article published Jun 22, 2020

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ON THIS day 25 years ago, the Springboks were just two days away from playing in the final of the Rugby World Cup against New Zealand at Ellis Park. The country was on a high and rugby fans were excited by the occasion, but one man who remained calm throughout was Bok coach Kitch Christie.

Christie sadly died from cancer in April 1998 - just three years after the triumph - but his memory lives on.

To get an idea of what he was like, what bugged him and what concerned him, in the days before the World Cup and during it, Jacques van der Westhuyzen spoke to Christie’s widow Judy, with a fair bit of input from their son Clayton, who was 15 at the time and “soaked it all in”.

Kitch got the Bok job in 1994, a year before the tournament. It didn’t give him much time to prepare. What did he feel the Boks’ chances were of actually going all the way?

Judy: Kitch was a very positive person and hoped that he “might” pull it off, but was realistic enough to know that the Boks were the underdogs and that they had huge oceans to swim through before reaching the final. From memory, South Africa were ranked eighth in the world and weren’t given a chance. Kitch always referred to his appointment as being an “ambulance job” considering the little time he had to prepare. But he couldn’t turn down the opportunity of coaching the Boks and felt it was a tremendous honour to represent and serve South Africa. He had lymphoma for 19 years and was on chemo (therapy) right up until the tournament, and then after the event he had to go back for more. His love of rugby, thank goodness, made him want to live and achieve, and coaching helped him forget about the disease for a bit.

Was he nervous in the build-up to the tournament? What did he speak to you about?

Judy: One of his concerns was that his health would let him down. But he was a very private person about his illness and although people knew he had cancer, he rarely spoke about it to anyone other than his immediate family. Kitch always loved a challenge and the Boks were definitely the underdogs. The additional pressure was that of being tournament hosts.

What were Kitch’s thoughts after the opening match win against Australia at Newlands? Were there big celebrations and did you do anything special together?

Judy: He knew the importance of the game against Australia. He was acutely aware that if the Boks were to be the runners-up in that group, it would make the run to the final that much harder. Apparently the atmosphere in Cape Town was electric and when he walked onto the pitch the people chanted his name and he was very flattered and touched by the chanting. I’d stayed up in Joburg. After the match, the people celebrated like we had won the World Cup already, but he realised it was just the beginning of the hard work.

As the tournament went on, did he grow in belief and confidence, or did he stay the same throughout?

Judy: He was of the sentiment “one game at a time”. He didn’t want to think further than that so every game was important. After the Wallabies game I think the players grew in belief, but Kitch always knew what the team could achieve.

What was he like as the knockout games approached? Did he have any concerns?

Judy: He didn’t show much emotion, but if he had any concerns it was the discipline of the players; he didn’t want any more fighting, like what happened in the match against Canada. It almost cost them the tournament.

Judy and Kitch pose with the Webb-Ellis trophy.

Did he have someone he specifically talked to, sought advice or guidance from?

Judy: I think he pretty much had his own philosophy and he might have spoken to the odd friend or confidant, but no-one stands out, not anyone I can remember specifically. He was a man who very much had the courage of his convictions. A few examples might be his selection of Os du Randt from the back-up players at the Free State, or his ballsy decision to move Mark Andrews to No 8 for the semi-final and final.

What were his thoughts about the new All Blacks sensation Jonah Lomu? Did he mention what he thought was required to keep Lomu in check and then actually beat the All Blacks?

Judy: Jonah was a major concern and Kitch used to watch video after video of the All Blacks’ games. He recognised that their squad was full of amazing players and they were the team to beat. All the hype leading up to the final was about Jonah. I recall Kitch was always mindful of the fact that Jonah tucked the ball under his left arm and fended off with his right. Usually you’d use the touchline as a defender but Kitch had a strategy to show Jonah the inside and keep James Small, the defender, on the outside. That nullified Jonah’s hand-off and the Boks were able to tackle and target the ball when Jonah was forced in-field. It provided the cover defence and some bigger bodies the opportunity and time to assist (in defence). Kitch (and everyone) knew that in a one-on-one situation, not many players were able to tackle Lomu.

What did you think of the whole scene - the Boks making it all the way to the final, to face the All Blacks, in their first World Cup, and it being in South Africa?

Judy: It was a surreal feeling. Personally, I couldn’t believe the Boks were doing so well, but I am a believer in God and I realised the importance of what winning meant to Kitch as an individual (with his illness), but also to the country, and so I used to pray a lot. I also didn’t realise just how united it made every person in South Africa at the time, and it didn’t matter what colour anyone was. We were all on a high!

Following the final, were there wild celebrations?

Judy: I don’t remember everything that well. We went to the final dinner and then I think everyone went out to party, but Kitch was tired and not feeling that well, so we went home straight afterwards. Then I think the whole team went to Sun City and once again I didn’t go. They needed to revel in their victory as a team.

Finally, in the weeks that followed the win, how was Kitch then?

Judy: There was obviously huge euphoria for weeks afterwards and so many reporters wanted interviews, so that took up a lot of his time. I think it was a bit of an “unbelievable” time in our lives. What maybe took some of the gloss off was the resulting struggle between Packer and Murdoch and the rise of the professional game. As you know, they eventually made the movie Invictus; in some respects it was an incredible movie to tell the political story of Nelson Mandela and what was happening in our country at the time. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it didn’t quite tell the rugby story.


@jacq_west

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