The Glory of '95: How the Springboks went from zeroes to heroes
I was based in Johannesburg, which meant I could spend the week staying at home. It made the experience all the more memorable. Everything was familiar, except the absolute support for the Springboks.
I’d never known so much pro-Springboks sentiment in the week leading into the World Cup final.
Corporates were backing the Springboks to win. There were cash incentives to charities for every tackle made on the All Blacks giant young winger Jonah Lomu. There were other motivations for every point the Boks would score. Some charity would be the beneficiary.
It was very unlike what I had been a witness to in 1992, when the All Blacks played the Springboks at Ellis Park in 1992. That match signaled the Springboks return to international rugby. The All Blacks won 27-24, but it was never a three-point game. The men in black were always comfortably 10 points in charge and the Boks’ final seven points came in injury time and with the last play of the match.
In the build-up to the 1992 Test, there was so much support among South Africans for the All Blacks. They were the demi-gods of world rugby and the closest most South Africans had got to the All Blacks was watching them on television.
The All Blacks were revered in South Africa, but in this particular June week in 1995 there was a shift towards green and gold.
Something big was happening, said the Springboks manager Morne du Plessis. He spoke of a greater influence and a greater force.
Du Plessis, a former Springboks captain, was adored the world over as a rugby ambassador. He led the Springboks during apartheid but he also managed them post-apartheid.
Du Plessis was the ideal rugby statesman for the Springboks at the 1995 World Cup. He was also perfect for the role of manager because his rugby pedigree allowed him to speak with authority about the game.
Du Plessis would relieve a lot of the pressure from coach Kitch Christie and captain Francois Pienaar.
He would address the rugby media and they wouldn’t mind that they were listening to the manager of the team. For the likes of myself, a young rugby reporter, I was engaging with one of the icons of the Springboks.
Du Plessis also displayed incredible humility whenever he addressed the media. He was so respected globally in the rugby community and this came to the fore throughout the week.
Du Plessis marveled at the rugby talents of Lomu and his impact on the tournament. Then he reminded everyone about the young men who would be wearing green and gold in the final. He said he would go to war with those young men. He wanted the people of South Africa to know they were being represented by warriors, who would make them feel proud at the final whistle.
The Bok players, in their interviews, were calm. They also spoke up the All Blacks, but it was more a case of respect than awe. They sought out the discussion on Lomu and said he represented the most challenging defensive effort. But each player was consistent in saying that it was not one player against Lomu, but Lomu against 15 Springboks. If the first one didn’t get him, the Boks were sure there would be teammates lining him up.
My week was spent between Johannesburg’s northern suburbs and Pretoria as France and England were playing for third place at Loftus on Thursday, June 22nd.
The match was a 17H00 kick-off and it was a match that had very little merit. The players from each side tried to talk up the rivalry of an England versus France contest, but the match would prove to be as limp as I have ever seen when it comes to France and England. The players from these two teams were the conquered. They just didn’t want to be playing a match five days after losing a semi-final. They’d come to the World Cup to win. When they lost, they just wanted to go home.
There was no intensity in the eyes of the French and English players during the interviews. It was very different when speaking to the Springboks and All Blacks.
The All Blacks players were super confident. They spoke about their teammates and they spoke about reclaiming a World Cup they had won in 1987 and lost in 1991.
The All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick, in the latter part of the week, told us at a media conference: “I have won a World Cup and I have lost a World Cup. I know which feeling is better and I know which feeling I want on Saturday evening.”
The All Blacks management had shielded Lomu from the media. It didn’t stop the media from turning every All Blacks press conference into a Jonah spectacle. It visibly irritated some of the players and at the last player press conference of the week, the first few questions asked of All Blacks wing Jeff Wilson were about Lomu.
Wilson challenged the media to ask him questions about Jeff Wilson and the final. If they couldn’t then they shouldn’t direct a question his way. There was tension at that press conference, which preceded a visit to Loftus for a match that had no tension.
The same French team that had lost 31-10 to England at Twickenham on February 4th, had beaten the same England side 19-9 at Loftus on dreary early Thursday evening on June 22nd.
The teams were largely the same, but the occasion was different because playing for third place was not an occasion any of the players felt warranted an effort or a celebration.
The big dance, as the players call it, is the final.
And despite the confidence among South Africans, the rest of the world had already anointed the All Blacks as champions. Australian sports columnist and former Wallabies lock Peter FitzSimons had a distaste for South Africa and the Springboks. He declared a 30-point win for the All Blacks and a victory for pedigree over patriotism.
This was a man who clearly did not understand the South African sporting psyche.
Independent on Saturday