Why this is more important than Mandela and ‘95

Why this is more important than Mandela and ‘95

When the baseball-capped Nelson Mandela danced his famous jig in the No.6 Springbok jersey, Siya Kolisi would not have paid a blind bit of notice.

For one thing, he had only just reached the grand old age of four in a place where birthdays were endured rather than celebrated, where survival was the name of the game.

For another, in his native Zwide and every other township throughout the nascent Rainbow Nation, the Springboks were redolent of the despised apartheid regime, a symbol of white South Africa.

For a black player to emulate Madiba, to stand where he stood wearing the same number on his back with the same World Cup in his hands, seemed a hopeless vision.

Visiting a township like Nyanga outside Cape Town in the South African winter of 1992, seeing the gaunt faces staring hopelessly out from row upon row of rotting corrugated iron shacks, reinforced a sense of Mission Impossible.

Back then, at the start of the new South Africa, the attitudes of the old one still ruled, that rugby was a white man’s game. They would tell you, with an almost audible sense of relief, that the black man preferred soccer, and when I asked one of the blazered brigade why the township kids were never encouraged to play rugby, he changed the subject.

Kolisi, born to teenage parents on the wrong side of the tracks, would have been outlawed as a Springbok under white rule. The chance he would never have got had he been born a generation earlier came in the form of a scholarship to one Cape Town’s private schools with a track record for producing international players.

The old Afrikaner habit died so hard and the face of the Springboks changed so slowly that until as recently as five years ago, the rugby club in Soweto had no empathy with the national team.

“It’s not a true South African team,” secretary Zola Ntlokoma said at the time. “It’s not a reflection of the nation. I support the All Blacks instead.”

Kolisi has changed all that which explains why winning this World Cup in such emphatic fashion against England in Yokohama will be a greater force of good throughout his troubled homeland than the winner of any previous World Cup.

That is saying quite something given the history of Springbok captains and South African presidents: Francois Pienaar and Mandela in 1995, John Smit and Thabo Mbeki in 2007, now, glory be, Kolisi and Cyril Ramaphosa.

“Siya has more responsibilities than I had or Francois had because he represents more people,” Smit said. “That’s why this will be a far greater moment even than 1995. It will change the trajectory of our country.’’

Where their first World Cup-winning team had one black player, the late Chester Williams, the starting line-up in Yokohama on Saturday night had six, including both try scorers, Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi, another township boy who, unlike Kolisi, made it without a private education.

And to think that Williams accused a fellow Springbok, James Small, of racially abusing him during a domestic match. Worse still, the white Transvaal lock Geo Cronje was removed from the putative Springbok squad for the 2003 World Cup after allegedly refusing to share a room with his black team-mate, Quinton Davids.

How inspiring that in his moment of personal triumph, when asked if he ever dreamt of winning the biggest prize, Kolisi remembered where he came from.

“As a kid,” he said. “All I thought about was getting my next meal…”

Best and worst of RWC 2019

Best matches: Japan 28 Scotland 21; Wales 29 Australia 25; France 23, Argentina 21.

Worst match: South Africa 19 Wales 16.

Best performances: 1 South Africa (v England, final); 2 England (v New Zealand, semi-final); 3 Japan (v Ireland, pool stage)

Worst performances: 1 Ireland (v Japan); 2 France (v Tonga); 3 Scotland (v Ireland).

Biggest upsets: 1 Uruguay 30 Fiji 27; 2 Japan 19 Ireland 12; 3 England 19 New Zealand 7.

Best tries: 1 TJ Perenara (New Zealand v Namibia); 2 Ketai Inagaki (Japan v Scotland); 3 Josh Adams (Wales v Fiji); 4 Charles Ollivon (France v Wales).

Best gestures 1 Canadian players in Kamaishi armed with shovels and brushes cleaning up the mess the morning after Typhoon Hagibis had blown through, claiming 84 lives. As their fly half, Ulsterman Peter Nelson, put it: “At times like this you realise there are an awful lot more important things than rugby. We just tried in a very small way to give them a hand.’’

2 Sonny Bill Williams taking off his boots after the third-place decider against Wales and giving them to a little Japanese boy in the crowd. After the final at Twickenham four years ago, he gave away his winner’s medal to 14-year-old Charlie Line after the English schoolboy had been knocked to the ground by a security guard during the post-match celebrations. Williams’ generosity stemmed from a simple homespun philosophy: “Better to be hanging round his neck than mine. I know he’ll appreciate it.”

3 An estimated 15,000 Japanese people turning out in the southern city of Kitakyushu for Wales’ first training session. They greeted the visitors by singing their national anthem, Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and the hymn Calon Lan, in Welsh, of course. Only in Japan…

Greatest TV audience by a World Cup host country: 54 million to see Japan’s historic win over Scotland, more than 40% of the country’s entire population.

Biggest flops 1 Ireland Given a 12-point start by Japan and still managed to lose.

2 Argentina: From semi-finalists in 2015 to non-qualifiers.

3 Scotland: Failed miserably to fire a shot in losing to Ireland.

My abiding memory?

Sheltering all day from Typhoon Hagibis in a Nepalese restaurant in downtown Tokyo with Anglo-Welsh friends and Death Metal bands from the US and Holland, watching Ireland-Samoa from Fukuoka, then trying to explain to the rock stars why Bundee Aki had been sent off.

Try making that up.

Some comfort for the English

Every cloud has a silver lining — even the black one which hovered above England in Yokohama all weekend.

The result will save the Twickenham exchequer taking almost as severe a beating as the one inflicted by the superior Springboks.

What the South Africans made of all the jingoistic noises coming out of London before the match about contingency plans for a victory parade in the capital and gongs all round is not clear, but they played as though they had read every word. The victory, every bit as comprehensive as the 20-point margin suggested, will spare the RFU forking out a reputed €3m in bonuses to their squad.

All that makes the actual prize money for winning the whole shebang seem almost like a bit of loose change at a mere £325,000.

Whatever happened to Celtic brotherhood?

And so having broken new ground with a tournament like no other, what a shame that the movers and shakers of the world game jibbed at taking the next one to another untouched venue: Ireland.

Out of all the home countries, England alone stood four-square behind the Irish bid.

Wales voted for South Africa, and Scotland for France on the basis that a second World Cup there in 16 years would generate more money.

So much for the Celtic brotherhood.

Erasmus joins dots for Boks

Wales’ failure to make the final, any final, is almost as chronic a habit as Ireland repeatedly falling at the last eight and yet each country can at last claim to have a World Cup winner thanks to the Pied Piper effect of Rassie Erasmus.

When he left Munster to run the Springboks two years ago, the newly-elected coach of the year took two specialist coaches with him — ex-Ireland full-back Felix Jones and Aled Walters, an unsung Welshman who knocked the world champions into shape as head of Athletic Performance.

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