Invictus – Nelson Mandela and the 1995 RWC

mandela02The former South African president Nelson Mandela died just a few hours ago on December 5, 2013. His death will be felt and marked right across the world, especially by those in South Africa who felt at first hand the astonishing effect he was to have on that country, as leader of the ANC and then as Madiba, the grandfather of the Rainbow Nation. I had the fortune to spend three years in South Africa in the 1990s, a period that included the first free elections in 1994 and the Rugby World Cup of 1995. These two elements merged in Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film Invictus. What follows is a version of a piece I wrote about Invictus at the time, a small tribute amongst many far more pertinent and erudite to someone who walked as a giant among men.

I have finally become my father. Up until the day he died, whenever a movie came on the television showing submarines during the Second World War, I could feel him wincing at every inaccuracy but at the same time basking in the knowledge that this was his war, his theatre.

Invictus, which hit the big screens at the end of 2009, was my war, my theatre. Not as a frontline player in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, but as a frontline journalist and to watch it played out on the big screen is a bizarre experience.

Yes, there are one or two inaccuracies – or dark cupboards where certain points are conveniently tucked away out of sight – but for the most part, it is a pretty accurate reflection of how life was in South Africa in 1995.

imagesCACDLGWUOthers of different generations and for different reasons will say there were more significant sporting events in the twentieth century, events where sport and society collided or combined to alter the bigger picture. The Berlin Olympic Games of 1936 – Hitler’s Games – is certainly one of them as is the 1972 edition when terrorism reared its murderous head.

From my personal viewpoint, though, nothing on a sports field will ever beat that moment on June 24, 1995 at Ellis Park, Johannesburg when Nelson Mandela came loping out of the tunnel wearing a Springbok jersey with the number 6 on the back.

There was a collective intake of breath from the predominantly white crowd – and then a universal roar. The cries of “Nelson! Nelson!” echoing around the ground sent the hairs prickling on the back of the neck. We knew at the time we were watching history in the making and that is a heady realisation.

There will doubtless be critics of the film, which is based on John Carlin’s Book Playing the Enemy. There are points where it seems to lose its pace and others where it is not sure if it is a Mandela biopic or a sports movie. In terms of cinematic drama, it lacks the dramatic downswing that ultimately heightens the high of the climax.

Surprisingly, Eastwood ignored the massive punch-up against Canada at Port Elizabeth that completely threatened to derail the Springbok campaign. Number one hooker James Dalton and left-wing Pieter Hendricks were both sent off and banned for the remainder of the tournament.

It was that incident, though, that allowed Chester Williams, the only coloured player in the side, to return to the side and score his four tries against Western Samoa in the quarter-finals. It was the silver lining to an incident made all the darker by a floodlight failure which delayed the start of the game.

Eastwood also conveniently ignored the fact that at least half a dozen of the All Blacks were suffering from upset stomachs during the final – Jeff Wilson throwing up on the sidelines was another abiding image of the afternoon.

This led the All Blacks coach Laurie Mains to accuse a waitress called Suzie of deliberately poisoning the players on the eve of the match – part of a plot by South African rugby boss Louis Luyt to land the Webb Ellis Trophy. Truth or urban myth? That depends on whether you come from Cape Town or Canterbury.

Morgan Freeman's Mandela congratulates Matt Damon's Pienaar after South Africa's victory in the 1995 RWC final
Morgan Freeman’s Mandela congratulates Matt Damon’s Pienaar after South Africa’s victory in the 1995 RWC final

Morgan Freeman is terrific as Mandela, the part he was always destined to play. Paul Morgan, then editor of Rugby World, was so taken with it that he predicted a culinary treat if he didn’t win an Oscar.

“If Morgan Freeman doesn’t win an Oscar for that performance then I will eat a rugby ball,” he said. Freeman was nominated but missed out to Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. Not sure if Paul ever got around to eating that ball.

Matt Damon also does a pretty good job as Francois Pienaar – in spite of being about a foot shorter and narrower – although he is less Pienaar than Freeman is Mandela, if that makes sense.

Even when he is sitting at home with his family, Pienaar comes across as a bit diffident, the kid who is always being pushed around by his father or the women in his life.

The Pienaar that I got to know was quite different. Confidence was his middle name.

Our paths first really crossed on the 1994 Springbok tour to New Zealand – a year before the World Cup. I was there for the SABC. He was always polite and respectful but equally forceful when he wanted to make a point or disagree with any of my touchline theories.

Even when he was injured and Tiaan Strauss temporarily took over the on-field captaincy, he was still the Captain with a capital C.

The real Mandela congratulates the real Pienaar
The real Mandela congratulates the real Pienaar

By the time he meets Mandela in the movie he has already been captain of the team for a year. On the field, he was the stand-out loosie in South Africa at the time, off it he was well aware of the stature of being Springbok captain, especially in the changing, new South Africa.

Perhaps in private the players were unhappy about running rugby clinics in the townships but the one I attended was one of the most uplifting afternoons of my life.

In terms of Pienaar’s relationship with Mandela, well Joel Stransky, the man who potted the drop goal that won the World Cup final says it was no surprise.

“At the time Francois was captain of the Springboks at a very politically sensitive time,” he told me. “A fresh start, a fresh democracy and a big world event happening, well it is only natural that the president would talk to him and try to unite the country.

“We knew he (Mandela) was behind us. He came to visit us before the opening game in Cape Town. We had tea and a bit of a chat and we knew at that point that he was 100 per cent behind us and hopefully that he would drive the support of the nation.

While the rest of us were grasping for a reality check when Mandela appeared wearing the Bok jersey, Stransky says the players were all pretty cool about it.

“Before he walked out, he came into the changing room wearing the shirt to wish us luck.

Joel Stransky drops the goal that wins the 1995 Rugby World Cup
Joel Stransky drops the goal that wins the 1995 Rugby World Cup

“But building up to a World Cup Final, you are very focussed and one dimensional in thought so we probably didn’t think much of it at the time.

“I mean he looked great, and we were delighted he was wearing it, but at the time we were more focussed on the game than on the political connotations.”

The movie tries to show South African rugby in a terrible predicament in the year before the World Cup. Again, this is not quite the case.

They did lose heavily to England in Pretoria in 1994 – the match featured in Invictus – but they then stuffed the English in Cape Town just a week later.

The Boks lost the tour to New Zealand 2-0 with one drawn but remember this was a tour where the coach Ian McIntosh had only a small say in selection. He was overruled on the decision to take Stransky – something he lamented at the time in various quiet moments and did ever after when he returned to Natal.

Instead he had to use Hennie le Roux at fly-half with Lance Sherrill as the understudy. Sherrill was a decent enough player and a hell of a nice guy but nowhere near Stransky or Le Roux on the field.

Mac was duly sacked at the end of the tour – true to form Pienaar took pains to thank Mac for his work at the press conference immediately after the final – and replaced by Kitch Christie who immediately restored Stransky to the number 10 berth.

With Kitch at the helm, they embarked on a tour of the UK where they beat Scotland and Wales. His 14 tests in charge led to 14 victories, including of course the final. So it was not quite as gloomy a picture as the movie suggests.

Incidentally, the rugby sequences in the movie are top drawer, helped by having guys like Zach Feaunati – ex London Irish and Bath – playing Jonah Lomu.

Francois Pienaar giving an interview to Barney Spender during the build-up to the 1995 World Cup (Photo: Grant Leversha)
Francois Pienaar giving an interview to Barney Spender during the build-up to the 1995 World Cup (Photo: Grant Leversha)

Perhaps the one thing the film might be criticised for is the feeling that winning the World Cup made South Africa a wonderful country. In the short term it certainly brought a feelgood factor and it was the first time I saw blacks and whites genuinely bonding and partying – most of the pubs in Jo’burg were drunk dry that night.

“Without a doubt the whole country did come together,” says Dali Ndebele, the former chairman of Soweto Rugby Club.

“I have my reservations about what happened afterwards but at the moment…I get goosebumps thinking back, seeing Pieanaar standing there and Mandela next to him…and Mandela wearing Pienaar’s number 6 jersey.

“My jaw dropped, I couldn’t believe Mandela had done that. The message he sent out.

“Rugby had a stigma attached to it of the apartheid regime…and here is a man who comes out of jail and embraces his oppressors.”

But the results did not produce a long-term effect.

Socially, South Africa was crippled by spiralling crime and for all his totemic value as a civil rights leader, Mandela looked ill-equpped to deal with the daily plod of nitty-gritty politics.

Pienaar was out of office a year later. Concussed and stretchered off against the All Blacks, the new coach Andre Markgraaf dumped him as captain and player. His Springbok career ended in 1996.

As for the rugby development side, well there was only one coloured player in the 1995 side – and just two in the team that regained the Webb Ellis trophy in 2007. Not much of an advance in 12 years.

“It played a role in unifying the country but I believe that had the rugby administratos been more pragmatic they could have harnessed the energy much more,” says Ndibile.

Nelson-Mandela“The kids did come out and start playing but the impact not as big as it could have been. I have always maintained it was a missed opportunity.”

Stransky also feels that it could have been better used.

“It was a wonderful opportunity that was taken advantage of it the short term,” he says.

“And I think a year later we won the African Cup of Nations football there was anothe great opportunity and Madiba was out there wearing his Bafana Bafana soccer shirt. They were all little opportunites.

“I think in any young democracy, any politically fraught environment there are highs and lows. It was definitely one of the highs and there were lows to follow.

“So was it capitalised on perfectly? Probably not. Was advantage taken at the time? Most certainly.”

And has Clint Eastwood made a movie that will keep you entertained for a couple of hours? You bet he has.

Barney Spender 2013

A version of this article first appeared on in 2009. I have reposted it as a small tribute to Nelson Mandela who died on December 5, 2013 at the grand age of 95.