S Africa to set sail on tide of goodwill

THE BIG KICK-OFF: Hosts challenge holders Australia in opening match worthy of final itself. Steve Bale reports from Cape Town
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The Independent Online
Now that the rugby world is at last either gathered at, or has its eyes on, Newlands for the sublime prospect of this afternoon's opening match between South Africa and Australia, it is bewildering to realise the World Cup is other than simply an end in itself.

Out there in the world at large, rugby union is intent on exploiting this World Cup to globalise itself, to make itself still more of an international game than is evidenced by the teams who are in South Africa nervously waiting to follow the Springboks and Wallabies.

And here in South Africa, rugby union is intent on making itself a truly national game in a way it certainly never was during the apartheid years. Football is the game of the masses - and will remain so despite the World Cup and despite the best efforts of the South African Rugby Football Union and even the Springbok team themselves.

Still, they are trying ever so hard. They have adopted the slogan "One team, one country" and in various messages to visitors and supporters have stressed the greater importance of the image the World Cup presents of a fledgling country than of actually winning the Webb Ellis trophy.

They deserve to be believed, not least because of the effusive backing they have received from President Nelson Mandela, who had a private meeting with the team yesterday - or perhaps that should be they had a private audience with him. All white as they may now be since the inopportune withdrawal of the injured Chester Williams, if they are good enough for Mandela they should be good enough for the rest of us.

However, the notion of the entire rainbow nation pulling together in support of these Springboks is less credible, bearing in mind the squalor and poverty that exist no less now than before Mandela took his walk to freedom and the 'Boks were still internationally ostracised.

Yet South Africa's manager, Morne du Plessis, a noble figure who has done as much as any of the great old Springbok players to take rugby to the non-white community, is convinced enough to know that the World Cup presents an unrepeatable opportunity for people of such profound sincerity as himself.

"The World Cup has come at a very critical time for our rugby in trying to spread the game beyond the traditional population and support barriers," he said yesterday, "and this is exactly what our 'One team, one country' slogan has been directed to. The World Cup is an ideal vehicle to launch our campaign and it has been successful."

What happens when the circus leaves town is another matter, but by then it will be incumbent on Sarfu to lavish some of the millions it makes from the tournament on township rugby rather than on the more recent priority of upgrading the already opulent stadiums which are about to host the World Cup.

This it has undertaken to do and, as Rugby World Cup Ltd is already certain of meeting its target of pounds 30m in gross revenue, funds will surely be available. Given the strength of the Springboks when drawn from less than 20 per cent of the population, the mind boggles at what they might ultimately become.

Like the other eight World Cup venues, Newlands has had a facelift for its allocation of today's game, South Africa v Romania, a quarter-final (probably England's) and a semi (maybe England's), is in resplendent condition with a pitch like a billiard-table.

The match is prospectively worthy of the final itself and is almost as important, since - assuming both Australia and South Africa beat both Canada and Romania in Group A - it will dictate their onward route. Both sides agree a quarter-final against England, the losers' lot, is better avoided.

This shows that the suggestion of a number of South African players that this is somehow just another game is laughable. On the contrary, they have never appeared in a World Cup before and so this is the biggest game of their rugby lives.

The public clamour and blanket coverage have ensured they know it. "The wave of goodwill across this country is something I haven't experienced in my 25 years of being involved in South African rugby," Du Plessis said. "It's difficult to stop people wishing you well. It's like turning a gift away, but we've done it."

This is not the same as saying the hordes of well-wishers expect the Springboks to win either the tournament or even this one game, and they probably will not. But if that were indeed how it turned out, those same laid-back players should brace themselves for a ferocious reaction.

Because, as England's tour here last year perfectly illustrated, when it comes to the feeling generated by South African rugby there is only light and dark and no shades in between, which is hardly a metaphor for these changing times.

NEWLANDS TEAMS

SOUTH AFRICA v AUSTRALIA

A Joubert Natal 15 M Pini Queensland

J Small Natal 14 D Smith Queensland

J Mulder Transvaal 13 D Herbert Queensland

H le Roux Transvaal 12 J Little Queensland

P Hendriks Transvaal 11 D Campese New South Wales

J Stransky W Province 10 M Lynagh Queensland, capt

J van der Westhuizen N Transvaal 9 G Gregan ACT

P du Randt Orange Free State 1 D Crowley Queensland

J Dalton Transvaal 2 P Kearns New South Wales

S Swart Transvaal 3 E McKenzie New South Wales

M Andrews Natal 4 R McCall Queensland

J Strydom Transvaal 5 J Eales Queensland

F Pienaar Transvaal, capt 6 W Ofahengaue New South Wales

R Straeul Transvaal 8 T Gavin New South Wales

R Kruger N Transvaal 7 D Wilson Queensland

Referee: D Bevan (Wales). Kick-off: 2.30 (ITV)

THE EXPERTS' PREDICTIONS

STEVE BALE

1: Australia

2: South Africa

3: New Zealand

4: France

TIM GLOVER

1: New Zealand

2: Australia

3: England

4: France

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