Quintin van Jaarsveld
Ahead of the silver jubilee of the Springboks’ World Cup win on home soil this Wednesday, four key figures have revealed some of the defining moments of their nation-building triumph.
On June 24, 1995, Francois Pienaar and his underdog team did the unthinkable as they edged the All Blacks 15-12 in a pulsating final at Ellis Park.
Historian Dr. Dean Allen was joined in conversation by captain and flank Pienaar, loosehead prop Os du Randt, flyhalf Joel Stransky and team manager Morné du Plessis on Thursday evening to reflect on the tournament and their transcendent triumph as part of a weekly video series raising funds for the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund.
Each of the four special guests spoke about events they felt had the biggest impact on their march to glory, the significance of which saw it being turned into a Hollywood movie (Invictus).
‘The final before the final’
The first, Pienaar said, was the opening match against defending champions Australia at Newlands.
Few gave the host a chance as South Africa were still forging a new rugby identity and building a squad post-isolation, while the Wallabies were a settled, star-studded side.
David Campese was chief among the Australian superstars – a legend who had seen and done it all. Pieter Hendriks, like most of the Springbok squad who would go on to become immortals, was unheralded at the time.
The first 30 minutes of the match went as expected, with the Wallabies dominating proceedings. Then came an iconic try that flipped the match on its head. Centre Japie Mulder threw a crucial cut out pass to No.14 James Small who found Hendriks with a well-timed pass.
The bulky left-wing stepped beautifully off the right foot to leave Campese for dead and score South Africa’s first five-pointer in the global showpiece. The Springboks won 27-18, kick-starting their campaign in phenomenal fashion.
Pienaar dubbed the Springboks’ World Cup debut “the final before the final” and described the win as the team’s best of the tournament.
“Australia was the reigning world champions, undefeated in 12 months of Test rugby and they had a ‘rock star’ team. They arrived at the World Cup as the [tournament] favourites, not New Zealand as many people thought.
“We were playing against a team that was so well-oiled, confident and you [often] see the picture of Pieter Hendriks with his fist raised [on his way to the tryline]. That is the money shot of the opening match.”
Pienaar said Hendriks’ try was far from opportunistic. It was, in fact, part of the brilliance of then-coach Kitch Christie, the only Springbok coach with a 100 percent winning record, who backed the pace of the No.11 who held the South African schools record for the 110-metre hurdles.
“Coach Christie said we must give Pieter Hendriks the ball in space and he will beat Campese. This guy was incredibly fast. The pass, if you go look at that play, James Small threw this incredible pass to Pieter. He got the ball with space and when he went past Campese, the whole stadium exploded.”
‘The Black Pearl’ enters the fray
Pienaar, who captained the Springboks in 29 Tests, said the second defining moment was when Chester Williams joined the squad.
Not named in the original squad due to a hamstring niggle, Williams was called up after Hendriks had been red-carded and subsequently suspended for the remainder of the tournament for his role in the Battle of Boet Erasmus – an infamous mass brawl between the hosts and Canada during their pool match in Port Elizabeth.
“That is the biggest disappointment for me from the World Cup. We always wanted to be disciplined. We were 20-0 up, they were physical, then a scuffle broke out that turned into a big fight.
“I probably had my worst week as a captain that next week. I sulked, I moped, I was angry. Coach sat me down on the Thursday and said, are we going to put this show back on the road?” said Pienaar.
Williams seized the opportunity, became a national hero and as the only player of colour in the team, the man dubbed the “Black Pearl” was one of the key role-players in uniting the nation.
“Chester was the face of the World Cup,” Pienaar said. “I asked Chester [when he linked up with the team] to share with us what is happening in South Africa. He shared with us the difference in South Africa, how the people are [now] supporting the team – with more and more people shouting ‘Springboks, Springboks’ when they were not doing it before.
“And he went on to score four tries against Samoa [in the quarterfinal]. What an incredible achievement. We really miss him in these times,” said Pienaar, adding his sadness at the passing of coach Christie, flank Ruben Kruger, scrumhalf Joost van der Westhuizen, wing Small and All Blacks great Jonah Lomu.
Madiba’s ‘surprise, emotional’ change room visit
Fast-forwarding to the final, a powerful, intimate moment played out behind the scenes as President Nelson Mandela paid the team a visit in the change room moments before kick-off – a surprise that had a profound impact on the players, Pienaar said.
“In those days, we were warming up in the change room, it wasn’t like today where people are out on the ground. So the team is focused, we’re getting ready for the biggest game of our lives and there’s a knock on the door and Mr. Mandela walks in. Nobody knew that…I think Morné did because I think he was the architect of that, but we certainly didn’t!
“It was SO emotional. He just wished us well, he said we’re making the country proud and when he left, it could’ve actually gone against us because it was SUCH an emotional moment in that change room. We had to calm everyone down because we still had a game to play.”
Pienaar added the role ‘Madiba magic’ played in the underdog team’s triumph, and the country’s reconciliation, cannot be overstated.
“We can’t give him enough credit. When he was released from prison and became the first [black] President, he said, ‘The time for healing has come, the time to build is upon us.’
“[An] Incredible message, but he lived that message. It wasn’t just a political speech; it was a genuine person that said, ‘We got to build, we got to grow’ and we cannot thank him enough.”
Du Plessis remarked that Madiba’s change room visit caught him by surprise as well, with the team manager and former Players’ Fund chairman also shedding light on the South African icon’s incredible humility.
“The knock on the door was as much of a surprise for me as it was for you,” he said in response to Pienaar. “I’ll never forget those words: ‘Morné, can I come in, please?’ I mean, can I come in when he was standing there with his Springbok jersey.
“We [then] all thought, well, that’s what he wanted the jersey for, but no, he came to that ground to wear the jersey, to wear the colours of the team that he’d decided to support and asked the nation to support, so it was a surprise for me.”
Half the battle of taking on the All Blacks is facing the famous haka. History has shown that the New Zealanders’ spirit war cry can either break the opposition’s will or galvanise them toward improbable greatness.
The momentous occasion of the final produced one of the greatest hakas of all-time on both sides, with the Springboks accepting the challenge with as much intensity as the All Blacks put into their passionate performance.
This is where Du Randt feels the hosts won the game.
“Standing for the haka, with everyone interlinked and Kobus [Wiese] walking forward and showing that we’re putting every emotion, [that] everything is at stake for us and we’re prepared to basically give our lives to win this game. You’ll face this big winger [Lomu], it doesn’t matter what happens, we’ll face that and we’ll handle that.
“I thought the way we pulled together, we felt this energy where everyone was together, it wasn’t a one-man show but a whole team against another team and I thought that made us win the game because we were a really tight unit,” said Du Randt, who went on to become the first Springbok to earn two World Cup winner’s medals when he helped power South Africa to their second of three Webb Ellis Cup conquests in France in 2007.
Stransky’s drop-goal for the ages
Stransky showed superhuman composure throughout the final. The Springbok flyhalf slotted a drop-goal and two penalties to take the game into extra time and a third to level the scores again heading into the final half of extra time.
Touching on how he managed to hold his nerve throughout the epic encounter, he said, “A lot of what you do is instinctive and we were a really well-drilled side.”
There was trust among teammates and belief in their structures, Stransky said, adding he knew early on that they’d be gripped in a tense, titanic tussle throughout.
“We had some great players, we had some great set phases, we’d used them throughout the tournament and there’s no doubt this game became very much a game of cat and mouse and it became clear to all of us that it was going to be a very narrow game, that maybe the difference was going to be three points or possibly even less had there been a try scored.
“We knew we had to take every point on offer, we knew we had to be hugely disciplined and we knew we couldn’t afford to miss tackles because then a great All Black side would certainly punish you and I think we got everything right.”
Then came the greatest highlight in South African rugby history – Stransky’s legendary drop-goal from a scrum just outside of the All Blacks’ 22.
“Francois called a back row move and when I looked up and Joost was putting the ball into the scrum, I could see that they’d done their homework,” explained Stransky, who’s seventh on the all-time leading Springbok points-scorers list with 240 despite playing in just 22 Tests.
“The All Blacks had prepared thoroughly – they knew exactly which move we were thinking of doing, which move we were going to do. Just the way their defensive line was set up, I knew there was a big gap for me to step into the pocket and make the kick.
“I called to Joost and we changed the move and fortunately it went over because I don’t think Francois was one of those captains who liked when you contributed his set phases,” he laughed.
A chuckling Pienaar replied, “Joelie, I love you for doing that!”
Had the score stayed 12-all, the All Blacks would’ve been crowned champions due to their superior disciplinary record in the competition. Instead, Stransky’s drop gave the Springboks the edge they needed and the hosts held on to claim a famous win.
The seed that blossomed into that decisive drop-goal
While many staunch Springbok supporters have come to learn about the halfback pairing cancelling Pienaar’s planned blindside move in recent years, Stransky shared the story behind the drop, revealing when the seed was planted and by whom.
“The Thursday before the final, the forwards were doing lineouts and I’ll never forget it, it was on a field that’s harder than my dining room table and coachie said to me, ‘Why don’t you kick more drop-goals? You made it sound so easy like any oke can do it, it’s not that hard, you just have to drop it, kick it and it goes over the poles.’
“What he did was, he planted a seed and I worked on it and I practiced. The next day, I went to Ellis Park a little bit earlier and I kicked probably 100 [drop-goals] before training and 100 after. That really was everything he instilled in us – there’s no excuses, you work hard and if you put the effort in, the dividends come and boy, was he right about everything.”
The crowning moment of racial reconciliation
A dream day had a fairy-tale ending, a nation-building moment that’ll forever be remembered as one of the most pivotal moments in South Africa’s history as Mandela – wearing his Springbok No.6 jersey and cap, presented the Webb Ellis Cup to Pienaar.
“It is only when you reflect on this many years later…we actually said exactly the same words to one another,” Pienaar revealed.
“When Mr. Mandela gave me the World Cup, he said to me, ‘Francois, thank you for what you’ve done for the country’ and I said to him, ‘No Mr. Mandela, thank you for what you’ve done for the country.’
“I’ve said this publicly; I wished I hugged him. I really wished I hugged him there, but I thought that was against protocol, you can’t do that. The smile on his face, the smile when he saw the team and greeted the team was something really special.
“I’m the luckiest sportsman alive. I really am, because of that special moment, and I thank my team for it. The team was insane. That team was just the most insane team I was lucky enough to captain.”
Pienaar wrapped up the Class of ’95 virtual event by announcing the launch of limited edition Springbok Supporters’ face masks in celebration of the 25th anniversary of their epic triumph at Ellis Park.
Only 140,000 masks are available at Pick n Pay stores nationwide and all profits will be donated to the Players’ Fund – the official charity of the Springbok which supports rugby players in South Africa whose lives were changed through serious injury on the field.
The Players’ Fund’s popular weekly interview series continues this Thursday evening with another Springbok legend as the special guest, record-breaking lock Victor Matfield.
For more information and to donate to the Players’ Fund, CLICK HERE.