François Pienaar: Mandela, Matt Damon and me

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For the former South Africa captain, watching the 1995 World Cup transformed into Clint Eastwood's Invictus has been eerie and emotional. In an exclusive interview, he tells James Corrigan his story – from friendship with the former president to the death last week of a team-mate

There is a film to promote, but first there is a friend to grieve. That the two go hand in hand but are diametric opposites must have made the situation seem all the more surreal for François Pienaar. It is fair to say Ruben Kruger has previously been to Hollywood what Matt Damon has been to Springbok rugby.

Except now Kruger is a central character in Invictus, the Clint Eastwood-directed epic which goes on general release in Britain on Friday. And so he should be. As Pienaar points out, without the quiet but terrifying openside there would likely have been no Webb Ellis Trophy to bring a divided nation together, no iconic image of a white captain being congratulated by a black president, no tear-jerking drama to fill a million cinemas.

"It was incredibly sad news for us; it has been a terrible week," says Pienaar referring to the death of the 39-year-old who finally lost his long battle with brain cancer last Wednesday. "I actually went to say goodbye to Ruben on Tuesday. He had been living with this for 10 years. South Africa has lost one of their most prominent rugby sons.

"An unbelievable player," he adds. "We called him 'The Silent Assassin'. He shied away from the public eye, but he exuded confidence. He never complained about a training session being too tough or too long. For Ruben, the opposition were never too good. He was always in there for the battle and thrived on it. He scored the crucial try in the semi-final [when South Africa beat France 19-15]. If he hadn't then maybe we wouldn't have won the World Cup and maybe we wouldn't be here."

Where Pienaar happens to be is Claridge's, a luxury hotel just off Bond Street. The great Springbok arrived in London the morning before we meet. With all the cameras, the bright lights, the make-up artists even, it is doubtless a little bizarre to the back-rower. Yet he always suspected these moments would come. Indeed, when John Carlin – the former South Africa correspondent of The Independent, who wrote the book Playing The Enemy on which the film is based – informed him of the imminent production a few years ago, Pienaar was anything but gobsmacked.

"No, I wasn't that surprised," he says. "I did say to friends a few months after the World Cup, 'This has been the most unbelievable six weeks in South Africa's history. If Hollywood had to write a script they could not have done a better job'. Everybody had come together and everything had come together."

Hollywood tried to do a better job anyway, and in many respects succeeded. Just down the corridor in Claridge's, the actor who plays Pienaar, is doing his bit for the box office. At 5ft 10in, Damon perhaps stretches credibility as a 6ft 4in blindside, but there you are. As Pienaar and the rest of the 1995 World Cup heroes were to discover, anything goes, and most facts are twistable, when the tale becomes the property of Tinseltown. They set out to show a black and white problem and they gave it the black and white treatment. First act: Springboks are the hated white man's team. Final act: Black man cheers on the Springboks. Shades of grey were not applicable.

"Once you've lived something, you cherish those moments and you don't want them to be portrayed in a light they weren't," reflects Pienaar. "So when some of the guys heard that in the script there is a resistance from us to singing the new anthem, there was a push-back. Because, in reality, we embraced it, actually getting someone in to teach us the words. And we went to [train in] the townships off our own backs.

"In 1986 when I was a first-year law student, I went to coach a high school in Soweto. That was just part of giving something back. If the team didn't have that in their hearts, they wouldn't have captured the hearts of the rest of South Africa. So those are the things the guys were debating. But after watching the movie we realised the film was a lesson. And we sat back and reflected how blessed we were to be in such a good squad, and to have had the opportunity to make a difference." The point is that Invictus is clearly desperate not to be a sports film and the film-makers' ambitions in this direction are completely understandable (if only because most sports films are rubbish). Pienaar was the perfect supporting actor to Mandela because he knew his place in the story. He still does. "The film's not about the '95 World Cup – it's about Madiba [Mandela's honorary title] and what he stood for and his leadership," he says. "My feelings have been well-documented of when I walked into the changing room before the final and Madiba was stood there wearing a Springbok on his heart. It was incredibly emotional. I couldn't sing the anthem. That emotion ran throughout the team."

It ran on through the final and into the evening. "I'll never forget the scenes I experienced on the streets of South Africa after the final," he says. "And even today, 15 years on, when I meet a group of people they all remember where they were, they remember how they felt. It's a legacy that can keep on giving and this film will help. To best describe it, some of my friends, white South Africans, after seeing the movie said to me they feel they can do more to make South Africa a better place. And my friends who are black South Africans say the same thing. So that's what you get from Invictus. We're living in a country which has tremendous potential and we have a very embarrassing past that we have to shake off at some stage. If we had that sense of forgiveness in our hearts and in our minds we will move forward."

However, it wasn't quite the happy ending the movie inevitably portrays. The blacks did not suddenly take to the rugby fields in their masses and neither were they particularly encouraged to. "I don't think we capitalised on what happened in South Africa in '95," says Pienaar. "I think the administrators of the time grossly missed an opportunity to take the game to the next level."

But then, it was about infinitely more than the progression of Springbok rugby. As the subtitle to Carlin's book implies – Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation – this was the most political of sporting victories. South Africa needed Mandela and Mandela needed Pienaar. The bond between the pair is obvious.

"We are still friends – Madiba asked me to go and have tea with him three months ago," says Pienaar. "I could tell you so many great stories. For instance, both my sons were born in London, we lived here for just over six years. Just after Jean had been born, the phone rang at 5am. My wife answered it and it was Mandela. I thought it was a disc-jockey playing a hoax and told her to hang up. But Mandela came to our wedding and Nerine carried on talking to him. He congratulated her on the birth. Then when I spoke to him, he said, 'Would you mind if I become godfather to Jean?' I mean..."

Now there are new friendships. In his consultancy role, Pienaar worked closely with Damon. The Oscar-winner learnt to be François; if not in physique then in voice and looks. "There's some of his mannerisms and the way he walked," says Pienaar when asked if it was a weird experience watching "himself". "Obviously the way he spoke as well. But more than anything it was his looks. They built a prosthesis for Matt's nose – I've got a big nose which has been broke too many times – and when Morne du Plessis [the Springboks team manager] went on set for the first time and saw Matt wearing it and having his hair the same way as mine, he said it was scary. Morne got gooseflesh when he looked at Matt."

Pienaar and Damon spent hours talking rugby, but it was not all just rucks and mauls. Just as it wasn't with Morgan Freeman, who plays Mandela, or with Eastwood. "I did get the opportunity to show them Cape Town, which they all loved," he says. "Clint's wife Dina, we played golf together and she said it was just like Carmel, where they live. It is a special country."

Pienaar is similarly well versed in London life, although Clint and the gang may find their guide has a full schedule this week. He is still a director at Saracens and there is a board meeting this week. There is also the little matter of the Six Nations. England versus Wales is a rugby rivalry worthy of a box set of its own and Pienaar is evidently anticipating another Twickenham blockbuster on Saturday.

"Oh, it's gonna be a humdinger," he said. "I love Johnno. I admire him as an individual, we spent some time together. But hey, this will be a big test for him and his management. They have some firepower but I like the way Wales have been playing. Who will win? I think Wales will just edge it."

Such an outcome would inevitably raise more questions about Martin Johnson's tenure. Should England have employed Jake White, that other great South African World Cup-winner, when they had the chance? "I don't to want to comment on that," responded Pienaar. "After all, I might run into Johnno in a dark alley." If not on a red carpet.

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