South African Rugby
Pienaar's human factor
April 15, 2009
Francois Pienaar accepts the Webb Ellis Cup from Nelson Mandela at Ellis Park in 1995 © Getty Images
Fourteen years have past since a dewy-eyed Francois Pienaar, captain of the South Africa side that had beaten the All Blacks 15-12 at Ellis Park, stood on the podium alongside his president, Nelson Mandela, lifting the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Pienaar's Springboks had been underdogs on their own soil on that day in 1995, their task in the final made all the more difficult by the presence of a rampant Jonah Lomu on the New Zealand wing. Through great fortitude, a peerless man-marking job on Lomu by the Springbok back-row and fifteen points from the boot of Joel Stransky the Springboks had their most famous victory however.
Today, Mandela is no longer in office, nor is Pienaar involved with the Springboks. And yet the vision of these two figures of hope and unity, of black and white together as one, continues to serve the romantic reminder of sport's powerful potential for good in a once divided nation.
Pienaar and Mandela are to be reunited in December, not in person but through the medium of film, when Clint Eastwood's The Human Factor hits the silver screen, with Matt Damon playing Pienaar.
"It's based on a book written by John Carlin called Playing the Enemy," Pienaar told Scrum.com in Johannesburg, "which they adapted to a screenplay to capture Nelson Mandela [played by Morgan Freeman] and what he did: his background in being a political activist, fighting for democracy, his release from prison, and how this game of rugby changed the nation. And that is how the film is written. Mandela, his years in prison, and how he got released, and what a shrewd tactician he is.
"I think it was Eisenhower who said that the art of leadership is getting somebody else to do what you want them to do, because he wants to do it. The same could be said of Mandela. In the 1995 World Cup, he saw the opportunity to unite the nation. He embraced the Springboks and the movie finishes with the final game, when the kick goes through the uprights and Mandela hands me the cup. Or rather, Morgan Freeman hands Matt Damon the Cup."
Even now, 14 years later, he speaks emotionally and with adrenaline-fuelled passion at the effect the victory had on his country. "It changed my life," he says, "but it changed everybody's lives.
"Everyone I speak to, they tell me where they were at the time, how they felt. Even people who didn't have access to television say so, when I drive through small towns. When I put gas into my car, the person says 'Hello, captain.' And that black man, quite often, would never have watched rugby before. You can't really describe it in words, to be honest.
"What I saw in the stadium when the final whistle went, there was not a dry eye in the house. The emotion was unbelievable. Political connections, be it left wing or right wing, they were standing there crying and were proud when Mandela came out with the Springboks, with the Springbok logo on his chest," he said. "It's going be wonderful to see how they capture this on film. The easy thing would be to do a black-and-white film - you know, apartheid and so forth. It would be interesting if they can capture those six weeks in South Africa; how a nation became one. How everyone danced in the streets when that final whistle went, embracing one another. That joy of being a South African."
The South Africa of 2009 is wholly changed from 1995, politically and economically, so much so that they are now considered ideally placed to host world events on a world-class footing. Not only is the 2010 football World Cup on the horizon, but they outbid England to host cricket's Indian Premier League tournament which was hastily abandoned in India due to security fears.
"I think it says a tremendous deal about our country. When we became a democracy under de Klerk, a lot of people were sceptical about our future. Yet 14 years down the line, we have a peaceful election, we have more political parties than we had in 1994, we have infrastructure investment and we have really been blessed with these events [lately] that have come to South Africa. The country has a can-do mentality. We are a nation who holds up its hands and gets things done."
One event Pienaar didn't mention was the forthcoming British and Irish Lions tour, which gets underway on May 30. For now, the Springboks aren't even looking ahead to the tourists - or "Euros" as Pienaar and South Africans like to call them - especially after a weekend which saw the Cheetahs upset Super 14 leaders the Sharks.
"That really is South African rugby typified," Pienaar said. "So I really don't think we'll even think about the Lions, until the Super 14 has settled down. Because the Bulls and the Sharks have got opportunities to go to the semis and the finals, and there will be no love lost when they play one another. It's part of our DNA. When you play another team, it is absolute war. There's pride at stake, of course, but also a position in the Springbok team."
The year 1997, when the Lions recorded the most unlikely of wins in South Africa thanks to Jerry Guscott's drop-goal in the second Test in Durban, is on the tip of my tongue but it needn't be. The defeat is tattooed on the inside of Pienaar's eyelids.
Jerry Guscott celebrates his winning drop goal for the Lions in 1997 © Getty Images
"It hurts. It really does. Unfortunately I didn't play in that, but I did attend. I was watching with Saracens' Nigel Wray. We were in Bloemfontein with his mother, in the stands. But fate, intervention…all played a role. And that's when the heroes grab the headlines, and I guess the same will happen in South Africa for the Lions. We have got tremendous talent in this country. We really have. But it's more about how you get that talent working together, finding the perfect recipe to serve up a win.
"To be a successful touring team, you need to have a nucleus that comes from a successful environment. In 1995 we had the Transvaal team. If you look at England's performance, the bulk of their guys came from Leicester and Wasps. If you look at Springboks when they won it in 2007, their players were predominantly Bulls and Sharks players. It's not about the individual - yes, they'll stand out, but they can only do that if the team plays well together. The energy in the camp, the ambition and focus of achieving their objective. Those will be the Lions' goals."
Pienaar will doubtless keep a close eye on the Springboks' performances, even though his life has changed irrevocably. "I play golf with Clint, I cook dinner for Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. In fact, Matt and I train together. It's been surreal."
Will Luke is assistant editor of Cricinfo and is currently in South Africa to cover the ICC World Cup Qualifiers