SA rugby is still in Madiba’s debt for the role he played in their re­vival

Satur­day Com­ment

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT - GAVIN RICH

HEN Ru­dolf Straeuli looks back on the 52-16 de­feat his Spring­boks suf­fered to John Mitchell’s All Black team in Pre­to­ria in 2002, it is not the dam­age that it might have done to his ca­reer as na­tional coach that sticks in his mind.

In­stead, as he told me when I in­ter­viewed him for my book on the post- iso­la­tion Bok coaches, The Poi­soned Chal­ice, it was the fact that the loss co­in­cided with Nel­son Man­dela’s birth­day that most grated him.

“It was em­bar­rass­ing to suf­fer such a heavy de­feat on Madiba’s birth­day,” said Straeuli.

Those words, ut­tered in re­flec­tion of a neg­a­tive mo­ment in South African rugby’s post-iso­la­tion his­tory, pos­si­bly tell us as much about Man­dela’s aura within the game in this coun­try as all the pos­i­tive eu­lo­gies that will flow in the wake of the death of the fa­ther of the na­tion on Thurs­day. For when Madiba passed away peace­fully at the age of 95, in ad­di­tion to the na­tion los­ing its great­est son and states­man, South African rugby lost its most noted and iconic tal­is­man.

Those who were at New­lands for the open­ing game of the 1995 World Cup will not for­get in a hurry the emo­tion that swept through the sta­dium when Man­dela made his ap­pear­ance on the field be­fore the kick-off.

“Nel­son, Nel­son, Nel­son…” was the chant that re­ver­ber­ated around the ter­races of the fa­mous old sta­dium on that clear May af­ter­noon, and even in the press- box tears were shed. The mean­ing was not lost on those who may have doubted the sin­cer­ity with which some of the mi­nor­ity groups had ac­cepted and em­braced change and the New South Africa.

It was at that mo­ment that we re­alised that the talk of the tour­na­ment be­ing a ve­hi­cle for na­tion-build­ing was not just jin­go­ism and mis­placed con­fi­dence. With the Sarfu chief ex­ec­u­tive Ed­ward Grif­fiths and Spring­bok man­ager Morne du Plessis en­sur­ing that the agenda was a con­stant part of the me­dia dis­course, the mo­men­tum picked up by Man­dela’s ap­pear­ance on the field was sus­tained for the next month.

The cul­mi­na­tion was thethen pres­i­dent wear­ing Fran­cois Pien­aar’s No 6 jersey to El­lis Park for the fi­nal, an oc­ca­sion that beaten All Black cap­tain Sean Fitz­patrick still looks back at as a spe­cial one in that al­though his team lost, he felt it a priv­i­lege to be part of an event that to the South African na­tion far tran­scended sport.

But while those spe­cial mo­ments of Madiba magic have been recorded in books and even recre­ated in movies, it wasn’t only in 1995 that the Madiba sta­tus as the na­tion’s tal­is­man was to im­pact on the Spring­boks.

In his book, The Real McCaw, All Black skip­per Richie McCaw de­scribed how his coach, Gra­ham Henry, changed the team’s en­tire ap­proach based on what he had seen in the Spring­bok dress­ing room fol­low­ing the South African tri­umph in the 2009 Tri-Na­tions sea­son.

WHenry told his play­ers that he re­alised that while the Ki­wis played for the team, the South Africans played for their coun­try.

There were many fac­tors that would have con­trib­uted to make it so, but Madiba’s role as a uni­fy­ing force, his re­fusal to bow to pres­sure to have the leap­ing Spring­bok re­moved as the na­tional team’s em­blem even though ev­ery other code had adopted the Protea, was a big part of it.

John Smit’s team had an au­di­ence with him be­fore they went to France to win the 2007 World Cup, and the coach, Jake White, wrote in his book, In Black and White, about the ef­fect Man­dela had on a match against Aus­tralia two years be­fore that, in 2005.

“Be­fore the match, Madiba was in­tro­duced to both teams on the field, and af­ter­wards we all walked back to­wards the chang­ing rooms to make fi­nal match prepa­ra­tions. As we were about to file in, Madiba came up the tun­nel in his golf cart. In a to­tally spon­ta­neous move, he asked the driver to stop so he could speak to John and the play­ers…

“They (Wal­la­bies) had no way through all the bod­ies and just stood there while Madiba ad­dressed the Boks. Madiba has an aura that you can’t help but be touched by. The Aussie play­ers were in­tim­i­dated by his pres­ence… Madiba was speak­ing pas­sion­ately to our team… I could see ( Bok) chests swelling with pride and de­ter­mi­na­tion. At the same time I looked at the faces of the Wal­la­bies, and I sensed they were think­ing: ‘Oh crikey, he’s here again’. They were al­ready beaten by the Madiba magic.”

But South African rugby hasn’t al­ways prop­erly re­paid Man­dela for what he gave to the game, and in 1996, just a year af­ter the win­ning of the World Cup, so much of the na­tion- build­ing mo­men­tum was lost when a new Bok coach­ing regime and the Sarfu ad­min­is­tra­tion failed to carry on what had been started.

In 1998 Dr Louis Luyt lost his po­si­tion as Sarfu pres­i­dent af­ter threat­en­ing to take Man­dela to court, and ques­tion marks over both the pace and the sin­cer­ity of the trans­for­ma­tion drive within South African rugby re­main to this day.

In the wake of Man­dela’s pass­ing, and as a trib­ute to the legacy of the Spring­boks’ great­est tal­is­man, it would be fit­ting for South African rugby to com­mit it­self afresh to the process of em­brac­ing and en­gag­ing with those who are still feel­ing dis­af­fected so that it can truly be­come a game for ev­ery­one.

For what he did for the sport in this coun­try, Madiba is owed noth­ing less than that.

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