Monday, September 14, 2015

The Rugby World Cup: 1995

The 1995 World Cup would be one of firsts. It was the first time the tournament was held in a single country, the first time South Africa were allowed to take part and the first major sporting event held in the country after the end of apartheid. 

There was also a last; it would be the last World Cup to be played in the amateur era with the IRFB allowing professionalism in the sport by the end of the year.

Again, eight of the sixteen teams taking part qualified by reaching the quarter finals four years previously. South Africa were afforded the ninth place as a result of being hosts for the competition. The remaining seven places were decided by way of regional qualifiers with one from each of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas progressing and three teams from Europe – including Wales who had failed to reach the quarter finals in 1991.
 
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Mandela, The Springboks and the Rainbow Nation
Though apartheid had officially ended in South Africa, it’s problems were far from over. After Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, many of the nation’s blacks wanted retribution. Mandela was lobbied for the right to bear arms and the nation was on the brink of civil war. Mandela continued to preach tolerance, despite his 27 years in incarceration; he was proving to be far from the evil and violent man the newspapers had portrayed.

With the Rugby World Cup due to land on South African shores, Mandela decided on his biggest attempt at uniting the nation. The Springboks were a sign of South African white privilege. The non-whites in the country had grown to despise all that they represented; British Lions players who toured the country in 1974 recall how the South African blacks in the stadium supported them in their battle with the ferocious Springboks. However, Mandela planned to bridge the gap between races and cultures using the Springboks as the foundations.

South African captain Francois Pienaar said Mandela’s name was linked, almost umbilically, with phrases like “bad man” or “terrorist” whilst he was growing up. However, when Pienaar reached college he began to challenge this notion, rejecting the conventional ideas of the white Afrikaners and opening as his eyes to the wider picture. Before the World Cup Mandela asked Pienaar to meet him to discuss his plans and the vital role the Springboks would play. This would be the first meeting in an incredible friendship.

First up the host would take on the World Champions in the tournament’s curtain raiser. Australia had gone 12 months without defeat and many of the players who had been victorious four years previous remained. Few fancied the chances of the Springboks, even on home turf. However, an inspired Joel Stransky performance saw the fly half score 22 points in a 27-18 victory over The Wallabies and set them on their way.

Victories against Romania, Canada and Western Samoa followed as the Springboks began to hit their stride. With France waiting in the semi final, it appeared the Gods had conspired to stop South Africa’s charge. Rain came in biblical proportions at Durban and water pooled on the pitch. Welsh referee Derek Bevan stood in a field of mud so bad that even Glastonbury festival goers would have been put off. Things didn’t look good and news filtered through that, if the game was cancelled, the Springboks’ dream was over – on account of France’s superior disciplinary record. 

Lightening cracked and thunder rumbled as union officials gathered on the pitch. The match was delayed for an hour and just when all seemed lost, old women in head scarves, brandishing brooms appeared. With much determination and buckets of elbow grease, they cleared the surface of water and the game began. South Africa won the game 19-15 and set up a final with the fearsome All Blacks and their newly famous prodigy.
 
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Lomu
At just 20 years of age Jonah Lomu entered the World Cup as a relative unknown. His two previous appearances had come against France; when neither he nor the All Blacks had performed, as Les Bleus twice claimed scalps. 

Before the tournament began the 16 squads gathered at an event on top of Table Mountain. Welsh lock Derwyn Jones pointed out a giant All Black to his team mates saying, "I'm not looking forward to facing that second row." That 'second row' turned out to be Mr Lomu himself.
If people didn't know who Lomu was, they would quickly find out. His World Cup started with a bang against Ireland in Johannesburg. Lomu bagged two tries in a 34-9 demolition of the Irish. Lomu would struggle against Wales and be rested for the Japan game, before grabbing his third try of the tournament against Scotland. Next up was England in the semi finals and what came next, changed the winger's life - and the sport - forever.

England for their part had played well. Wins against Italy and Argentina were followed by a convincing victory against Western Samoa to top their pool. However, it was a tense victory against The Wallabies that really boosted their confidence and belief that they could beat the All Blacks. After 20 minutes it was clear there task would be huge. Tony Underwood, Will Carling, Mike Catt and Rob Andrews were made to look like school boys playing senior rugby as the giant Lomu run around and through players, barely breaking stride. Such was New Zealand's dominance, even number 8 Zinzan Brooke kicked a drop goal. Lomu would bag another three tries before the final whistle sounded and write himself into history as he decimated England. 
Lomu would become the sport’s biggest ever star. For the first time in rugby's history Lomu appeared to capture the imagination of the whole world. Sponsorship deals, NFL offers and video games followed and a rugby superstar was born. It would be eight years before the details of Lomu's energy sapping nephrotic syndrome would be revealed and many would ponder just how strong the man could have been.
For the second time in three tournaments, the All Blacks would play in the final.
 
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The Final
The 1995 final is one that has fallen into the realm of mythology. Rumours abound of the All Blacks struggling with food poisoning and conspiracy theories surrounded a hotel waitress named Suzie. The All Blacks and Mr Lomu wouldn’t be at their best and fingers pointed at dickie tummies and dodgy dinners.

Before the game the weight of a nation weighed on the shoulders of the Springboks. In the changing room, captain Francois Pienaar readied his troops when a knock on the door was followed by the appearance of Nelson Mandela. Mandela wore the green jersey of South Africa and there “on his heart” was the Springboks badge that had divided so many for so long. Pienaar moved to speak to the president but was moved to silence by the emotion of realising Mandela wore a number 6 on his back; Pienaar’s number 6.

In the crowd there was no such silence. An already excited South African support was further whipped up when a Boeing 747 flew over Ellis Park, almost within touching distance of stadium’s roof and with “Good luck, Bokke” written underneath.

The game itself was ferociously contested and the truth is it was to be a last ditch tackle on Lomu - by Joost van der Westhuizen that would deny the All Blacks - not any bout of listeria.

At the end of 80 minutes there was nothing to separate the teams and extra time would be needed. Tired aching bodies battled on; Francois Pienaar continued through a calf strain, pushing back the pain in search of glory and history. With time ticking away it was Stransky again who would become the hero; dropping a goal to seal a famous victory. South Africa had won the World Cup at the first time of asking.

Nelson Mandela presented the Webb Ellis Trophy to Pienaar, still wearing his Springboks jersey and hat. The rapturous crowd chanted his name – “Nel-son! Nel-son! Nel-son!” – despite over 60,000 of the 63,000 present being white. As he quietly thanked Pienaar for what he had “done for the country.” Pienaar fought back his emotions as he replied, “no, sir, thank you for what you have done for this country.”

People sang and danced and hugged and cried in the streets around South Africa, the pair stood together in the perfect metaphor for the nation. The blonde haired, white Afrikaner and the black president, together in triumph with the green of their jersey the only colour that mattered. The nation would never be the same again.
 
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