12 days of rugby: South Africa’s iconic World Cup win

Planet Rugby

With the festive season in full swing, it’s time to kick off our 12 days of rugby. First up, it’s Francois Pienaar’s and Nelson Mandela’s landmark picture.

Lead-up to that special rugby moment

Having been banned from the 1987 and 1991 World Cups, South Africa was selected to host the tournament in 1995, but it was a rather fraught build-up, both politically and on the sporting front.

The abhorrent apartheid system had only recently ended, with Nelson Mandela, the country’s first black head of state, coming to power in 1994, and, as a result, the nation was divided. Rugby was the white man’s sport and the black community regularly cheered when the Springboks were defeated, but Mandela saw a way of uniting South Africa via rugby union.

With the upcoming global tournament, he viewed it as a unique opportunity to bring people of all colours and backgrounds together. Many resisted and the rest were sceptical but, as the competition got underway, momentum grew.

Opening their pool campaign against defending champions Australia, the hosts produced an excellent display to emerge 27-18 triumphant. From thereon, they went from strength-to-strength, sailing through to the last four with a dominant 42-14 victory over Western Samoa.

It set up a match against France but a deluge threatened a cancellation, a judgement which would have put Les Bleus through to the showpiece event due to having a better disciplinary record than South Africa, but the pitch was deemed playable. It was a controversial decision, with some describing it as a lake rather than a rugby field, but the home team managed to edge through to the final.

There they would face the mighty All Blacks, who were favourites and had made serene progress to the latter stages. No one had got close to New Zealand and their performance in the semi-final was ominous when they thrashed England 45-29, but this was destined to be the Springboks’ tournament.

Why it will live long in the memory

It was a watershed moment for the country as rugby, for a brief moment at the very least, managed to unite a nation. Of course, racial tensions are still prevalent in South Africa, as it is unfortunately in many corners of the globe, but this was a time when people of all colours came together to support the previously divisive Springboks.

Sport has the power to do that and it proved to be a defining moment with South African rugby making progress in regards to equality. Since then, there has been their first black head coach in Peter de Villiers and their first black captain in Siya Kolisi, who of course lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in 2019.

A lot of progress still needs to be made but that tournament at least allowed the prospect of civility to build between the respective races. Nothing epitomised this more than the picture of Mandela, in his Springbok jersey, handing over the trophy to captain Pienaar. That photo and video have been shown and replayed endless times over the past 25 years and remains one of the most iconic images in rugby history.

It even reached Hollywood as the Clint Eastwood-directed Invictus hit cinemas around the world, starring Matt Damon as Pienaar and Morgan Freeman as Mandela, who earned Oscar nominations in the process.

For South Africa, their victory over New Zealand and the way Mandela brilliantly used the World Cup to unify a nation gave his people hope and that, ultimately, is what always drives humanity.

There have been many great moments in rugby’s global tournament, from Jonny Wilkinson’s last-minute drop-goal, to Kolisi captaining the Springboks to the 2019 title and New Zealand’s incredible feat of going back-to-back, but none are as significant as that day in 1995.