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Springboks set for rematch of day that ‘changed South Africa forever’

The Springboks and All Blacks meet again in a Rugby World Cup final, 28 years after Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar united a nation

Luke Baker
in Paris
Wednesday 25 October 2023 07:30 BST
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Francois Pienaar received the World Cup trophy from Nelson Mandela in rugby’s most iconic image
Francois Pienaar received the World Cup trophy from Nelson Mandela in rugby’s most iconic image (afp/gettyimages)

It remains the most iconic image in rugby history. In fact, it has legitimate claim to be up there with the likes of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s black power salutes on the Olympic podium and Diego Maradona leaping above Peter Shilton for his ‘Hand of God’ moment as one of the most iconic photos in all of sport.

Nelson Mandela shaking hands with Francois Pienaar and handing him the 1995 Rugby World Cup after a South Africa victory over New Zealand in front of 63,000 people at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.

If a picture is normally worth a thousand words, this one was worth considerably more and carried a greater power than any speech.

Nelson Mandela wore a Springboks jersey with No 6 on the back (Pienaar’s number) to present the trophy to Francois Pienaar (afp/gettyimages)

Mandela, the Black freedom fighter turned president of a divided nation, openly and joyously supporting his country at rugby – the traditionally Afrikaner sport that had historically seen Black South Africans cheering for the opposition.

Mandela wearing a South African rugby jersey and cap, both of which were adorned with a springbok, formerly the very symbol of apartheid, rallying the entire nation – Black and white – around the team.

Pienaar, the blond Afrikaner captain almost disbelievingly receiving the trophy from a president wearing his No 6 on the back of his jersey, helping provide one of South Africa’s most enduring and defining images of racial unity at the most important time.

“When the final whistle blew South Africa changed for ever. It’s incomprehensible,” said Pienaar in an interview with The Observer back in 2013.

The previous six weeks had seen the Springboks build through a home Rugby World Cup – the first they had competed in since the end of the international exile and sporting boycotts they were under, removed following the fall of apartheid, Mandela’s release from prison and the first free, democratic elections open to citizens of all races in 1994.

The Boks battled their way into the final where they faced their great rivals, heavily-fancied New Zealand, led by the best player in the world Jonah Lomu. But South Africa dug deep and Joel Stransky’s drop goal in extra-time handed them an unlikely 15-12 win that sent the stadium into raptures and meant so much more than just a World Cup trophy to the country.

A nation celebrated as the Springboks won the 1995 Rugby World Cup (Getty Images)

“During those six weeks what happened in this country was incredible,” reflected Pienaar. "I’m still gobsmacked when I think back to the profound change that happened.

“We started with a great leader with a fantastic vision [Mandela] who realised that sport is important for the Afrikaner white community and to earn their respect and trust. But on the other side, I have such respect for what he had to go through in the African National Congress because the springbok was a symbol of apartheid. The majority of South Africans never supported the Springboks, so to ask them to support them for the first time was a massive ask.

"Through the course of those six weeks, because he asked them and we came to the party in terms of playing good rugby and building a nice momentum towards the final, things happened in South Africa that were just magical."

That didn’t mean that things were a racially-unified rainbow of love within either the Springboks squad or the South African rugby system itself. There was just one Black player in that World Cup-winning squad – winger Chester Williams, who scored four tries in the quarter-final win over Samoa – and he revealed the racism he experienced throughout the 1990s in his authorised biography Chester – A Biography of Courage released in 2002.

Springboks teammate James Small called him a “f****** kaffir” on the field when they played each other at club level and shunned him throughout his career. Most Springbok players also refused to join the same table as him and the other Black players at mealtimes, although he named Gary Teichmann, Werner Swanepoel and current South Africa director of rugby Rassie Erasmus as notable exceptions to that.

Chester Williams played for the Springboks throughout the 1990s and score four tries in the 1995 Rugby World Cup semi-final win over Samoa (Getty Images)

But while Williams made clear he was “definitely not a product of any enlightened developmental system put in place to help Black and coloured players”, he still remembered that 1995 final incredibly fondly.

“It was the first World Cup in which South Africa was involved. We were the host country, we won and it unified the nation,” said Williams in a 2013 interview. “Everyone was so happy. White, Black, everyone. That day we all became legends and after the match things were so much better in the country.”

Williams sadly became the fourth player of that 1995 side to die – after Ruben Kruger, Joost van der Westhuizen and Small – when he passed away in 2019 but the legacy and memories of that final live on, not least because the story of that Springboks side was immortalised in the Clint Eastwood-directed film Invictus, starring Matt Damon and Nelson Mandela.

Twenty-eight years later and South Africa face New Zealand in a Rugby World Cup final for the first time since that day. The landscape in both countries and the world as a whole looks very different nearly three decades on but the fact that the Springboks and the All Blacks are still at the pinnacle of men’s rugby is fitting.

The economic, political and social problems of 1995 have been replaced by different, but perhaps just as severe, problems in 2023, yet the two countries to whom rugby union means more than any other meet again in the sport’s showpiece in Paris on Saturday evening.

There is unlikely to be a photo as iconic as Mandela and Pienaar’s handshake, while the chances of a Hollywood film being made about the game are also considerably smaller, and perhaps the match isn’t as important from a geopolitical perspective as its 1995 counterpart. But to those on the pitch and watching in the stands, the rematch will still mean everything.

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