25 years ago today marked the most incredible moment in South Africa’s sporting history when Francois Pienaar lifted the Rugby World Cup.
I believe that moment is one of the most iconic moments in the history of all sport when Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springbok rugby jersey and baseball cap, presented the golden Web Ellis trophy to the South African Captain that day.
Of course the story was told in the film Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood; starring Morgan Freeman (as Mandela) and Matt Damon (as Pienaar) but for a more insightful background to this extraordinary journey I would recommend that you read John Carlin’s book ‘Playing the Enemy’ that tells the extraordinary human story of how that moment became possible.
It shows how a sport, once the preserve of South Africa's white Afrikaans-speaking minority, came to unify the new rainbow nation, and tells of how - just occasionally - something as simple as a game really can help people to rise above themselves and see beyond their differences.
Perhaps today, a quarter of a century later that this is a poignant moment to also reflect on our current situation with COVD-19 and the Black Lives Matter campaign which has shown how sport can play its part to heal past wounds and to re-educate us all.
I do believe rugby is an inclusive game and as we address racism, discrimination, social injustice and oppression on the black and coloured communities I’d like to quote Nick Bryant, BBC News America correspondent that sums up 3 simultaneous convulsions in the USA that gave new momentum to the BLM campaign. Bryant said in his news report last week; “that the pandemic has dis-proportionally affected people of colour; that the economic shock has dis-proportionally affected people of colour and that civil unrest caused by the brutality of the police has dis-proportionally affected people of colour.’
The BLM campaign has spread across the world and here in the UK professional football has taken a huge step or should I say ‘knee’, in support of BLM. We are only at the start of this process and everyone can play a part in changing the dialogue of discrimination but I do believe that rugby can and should do more. 25 years ago Nelson Mandela did just that and he understood how sport can be the game changer.
A number of years ago I sat with Pienaar and recorded a radio series with him and his thoughts on that monumental day. It was in his London home that I got to hear of Mandela’s vision that he would unite the people of South Africa by supporting his team that included only one black player Chester Williams.
What a beautiful man Chester was. I go to know him well over the years meeting at various events, dinners and on social occasions. Sadly he passed away last year having suffered a heart attack.
Francois and I were in tears as we talked about the emotion of him being presented the trophy that day and I am sure that today, 25 years later; he will look to the skies and pay tribute to both Mandela and Williams.
Incidentally it is worth noting that 3 other members of that famous team have already departed, James Small, Joost van der Westhuizen and Ruben Kruger as well as their coach Kitch Christie. The team that were defeated that day New Zealand also lost the biggest name of all Jonah Lomu so in writing this blog on this day, I pay tribute to all these guys who brought so much to our game.
I played in that Rugby World Cup and I look back with pride that somehow I was a small part of that history. The country was united and the ambition and opportunity was there for all to see. I don’t know enough now how the country is doing, its economy, its troubles or indeed its approach to poverty or social or racial injustice but fast forward to Sunday 3rd November last year when the South African’s captain Siya Kolisi lifted the trophy once again.
His story is quite incredible. Overcoming unimaginable hardships in a township in Port Elizabeth where even food was hard to come by he lived his dream to play rugby at the highest level. In the build up to the World Cup final, I heard about Kolisi’s journey from my South African friends and that he had talked strongly about the feeling of pride and joy that he had for his country and people of South Africa.
Like Mandela, Kolisi had transcended all. He showed in his performance and Captaincy true leadership qualities, of honesty and courage. He spoke of the pride and joy in representing his country and more importantly he had given his people hope.
The image of Kolisi lifting the trophy into the clear night sky in the Yokohama stadium in Tokyo is set to become as treasured a picture as the day Mandela presented the trophy to Pienaar.
The fact was that this time the man being given the trophy was black makes the moment even more powerful. It’s a statement that says rugby is inclusive, that the game does not discriminate and that we are a game for all.
I’ll leave you with the words of Kolisi who said in his post-match interview about his country, ‘we love you South Africa, we can achieve anything if we work together as one’.