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