Rainbow Nation finds its crock of gold

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The Independent Online
reports from Johannesburg

New Zealand 12 South Africa 15 (after extra time; score at 80 mins, 9-9)

The All Blacks played the best rugby of the World Cup, indeed of the World Cup final, but at its stirring climax how could anyone begrudge South Africa - the team and the country - the Webb Ellis trophy? When Francois Pienaar accepted it from President Nelson Mandela, No1 man and No1 fan, the Rainbow Nation had found a real crock of gold.

How fitting, how moving. Mandela identified so closely with the team that he blithely wore a Springbok jersey carrying the No6 (Pienaar's number) and cap rather than the suit and stuffed shirt that might have been expected at, say, Twickenham. To hear an overwhelmingly white crowd of 62,000 chanting the president's name in unison was to appreciate and celebrate the profundity of South Africa's mood change.

And to be at Ellis Park, to be in Johannesburg amid multi-coloured roistering reminiscent of Rio when Brazil have won the football World Cup, was to understand the new truth that rugby, once the very embodiment here of the white man's subjugation of the black man, has become part of the healing process.

As the South African Rugby Football Union's chief executive, Edward Griffiths, properly and with affecting modesty pointed out yesterday, the recuperation still has a long and painful way to go. But by winning the World Cup and making it plain that they have done so on behalf of every South African, Pienaar's team have done their country a service the magnitude of which they cannot know. That the match itself was stifled by dominant defences and that the rugby was mostly unworthy of the occasion hardly mattered, because what did matter was the occasion. The censorious reaction of members of the England party who attended was thus curmudgeonly in the extreme.

Quite apart from which, the tension, unbearable and unbelievable, made it unforgettable, so to say - as one British rugby luminary did afterwards - that it was a relief to see a game as bad as Ireland v Wales was both insensitive and, alas, typically blinkered.

Still, it is true that the cup was won by defence rather than attack. New Zealand did everything they could to open up as they thrillingly did in their semi-final against England but the ferocity of the Springbok tackling was such that even the most promising moves were never sustained.

This was partly due to their own unfamiliar fallibility, occasionally bad kicking but more importantly rank bad handling, unforced errors which the previous evidence of this tournament had suggested the All Blacks did not make, or at least not when it mattered.

And it mattered more than ever in a final which went into extra time because New Zealand had, uncharacteristically for them, failed to nail down their chances. The line-out supremacy of Ian Jones gave them the ball but, astonishingly, they did not know what to do with it.

So although Walter Little occasionally created space in midfield, no one - not even Jonah Lomu - was capable of exploiting it. As Kitch Christie, South Africa's coach, said with the greatest satisfaction: "He got the ball eight times and luckily enough we took him out eight times."

The Springboks solved the Lomu problem by the fairly simple expedient of ensuring that tacklers were present in numbers whenever the gigantic wing received the ball, though we can be sure this was rather easier to plan than to execute. So although he invariably broke the first tackle there was always a second tackler waiting, and the only time Lomu got away he was recalled for a forward pass.

It was South Africa's triumph that they managed to police Lomu without neglecting their wider responsibilities but the rugby that this involved was essentially mundane. The ball never passed beyond Joel Stransky from set play and the Springboks successfully reverted to the old formula - which seemed to have been discredited in England's defeats by New Zealand and France - of seeking inspiration only in the opposition 22.

The policy worked well enough to keep South Africa in contention when they might have fallen away but, though Ruben Kruger claimed to have touched down on one occasion, it was no surprise that they should not have had tries. At the same time it was rather shocking that New Zealand, too, should have had none.

Instead the game proceeded with Stransky and Andrew Mehrtens kicking two penalties each, Stransky giving South Africa the half-time lead with a drop goal and Mehrtens equalising with a drop of his own in the second half. The New Zealand stand-off also missed with four drop-shots, the final, excruciating one coming from a comfortable position with two minutes remaining.

It would have won the cup, and once the game went into extra time and Mehrtens had landed his third penalty from half-way it steadily slipped from the All Blacks' grasp. Richard Loe had barely taken the field than an archetypal piece of foul play gave Stransky a penalty and, at last, after 93 drawn-out minutes Stransky lined up his second drop goal.

"We must be very humble in our victory because it could have gone either way," Christie said, striking a note almost as perfect as those that run through Shosholoza. Modesty in victory, like the All Blacks' magnanimity in defeat, is a laudable quality. How depressing that Louis Luyt, omnipotent president of Sarfu, could not have seen it the same way.

South Africa: Penalties Stransky 3; Drop goals Stransky 2. New Zealand: Penalties Mehrtens 3; Drop goal Mehrtens.

SOUTH AFRICA: A Joubert; J Small (Natal), J Mulder, H le Roux (Transvaal), C Williams; J Stransky (Western Province), J van der Westhuizen (Northern Transvaal); P du Randt (Orange Free State), C Rossouw, S Swart, J Wiese, J Strydom (Transvaal), R Kruger (Northern Transvaal), M Andrews (Natal), F Pienaar (Transvaal, capt). Replacements: R Straeuli (Transvaal) for Andrews, 90; B Venter (Orange Free State) for Small, 97.

NEW ZEALAND: G Osborne (North Harbour); J Wilson (Otago), F Bunce, W Little (North Harbour), J Lomu (Counties); A Mehrtens, G Bachop (Canterbury); C Dowd, S Fitzpatrick (capt), O Brown, R Brooke (Auckland), I Jones (North Harbour), M Brewer (Canterbury), Z Brooke (Auckland), J Kronfeld (Otago). Replacements: J Joseph (Otago) for Brewer, h/t; R Loe (Canterbury) for Dowd, 93. Temporary substitute: A Strachan (North Harbour) for Bachop, 26-32.

Referee: E Morrison (England).

Kitch Christie, South Africa's coach, announced within hours of his side's World Cup final victory that he was leaving the job. Christie, who took over only last year and led the Springboks to 11 wins in 11 Tests, said: "I was asked to step in to do an ambulance job. I think my task is complete. I have a family and a business to devote my time to."

However, South Africa's manager Morne du Plessis said: "I will be having a word with Kitch about his decision.

"I don't think that these sort of decisions should be made straight after emotional events like a World Cup final."

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CHRISTIE QUITS WORLD CHAMPIONS

South Africa coach Kitch Christie announced within hours of his side's 15-12 extra-time World Cup final win over New Zealand that he was quitting the job.

Christie, who took over only last year, said: " I think my task is complete.

"I have a family and a business to devote my time to," added Christie who led the Springboks to 11 wins in 11 Tests.

However, South Africa's manager Morne du Plessis said: "I will be having a word with Kitch about his decision.

"I don't think that these sort of decisions should be made straight after emotional events like a World Cup final."

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