The East Terrace
Controversy over Hollywood re-write
James Stafford
January 1, 2010
Former South Africa captain Francois Pienaar poses at the premiere of Invictus, Beverley Hills, California, USA, December 3, 2009
Former Springboks captain Francois Pienaar poses at the premiere of Invictus in Beverley Hill, California © Getty Images

Huge controversy is brewing in rugby circles over the plot and themes of the new Hollywood blockbuster Invictus.

Invictus is a biographical film based on the story of former South African President Nelson Mandela and ex-Springbok captain Francois Pienaar and tells of their lives during the momentous 1995 South African Rugby World Cup victory.

The movie, the biggest blockbuster ever made featuring rugby as a main theme, stars Hollywood legends Morgan Freeman (Seven/The Dark Knight/Shawshank Redemption) and Matt Damon (Bourne Trilogy/Good Will Hunting) as Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar respectively. Adding to the glamour of the title the film is that it is directed by movie god Clint Eastwood.

The filmmakers claim their film is based on the book by John Carlin called Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation, but early viewings of the movie indicate certain aspects of the movie have been overly dramatised to add excitement for the American audiences who will know little or nothing about Nelson Mandela, let alone rugby union.

The most obvious issue with the film's interpretation of the events of 1995 is what appear to be changes to the character and actions of Francois Pienaar. Perhaps inspired by the casting of Matt Damon in the role, most famous for starring as super-assassin Jason Bourne in three hit movies, Pienaar's movie alter-ego is shown doing many things that fellow Springbok teammates do not remember happening in real life.

In particular there is much disputing whether Francois Pienaar really did travel to the 1995 World Cup Final at Ellis Park in Johannesburg using a stolen taxi whilst leaving a trail of destruction and damage city wide.

"I was on the team bus that went to the game and was sat with Francois," said Joel Stransky, the Springbok outside-half who kicked the winning drop goal in extra time to give the Boks a famous win. "He certainly did not find himself in a situation whereby he was forced to elude a dozen highly armed, highly trained New Zealand government assassins with his bare hands just two hours before kick off at his team hotel. And I can say with absolute certainty he did not drive against the flow of the traffic on the Johannesburg streets at speeds over 100 miles an hour whilst wildly shooting foreign spies out of the taxi window with a semi-automatic pistol. I'm pretty sure I'd remember that, or if I didn't the lads would. And as for using a copy of the souvenir match programme to disable a gun-toting Kiwi fan as he entered the stadium? Well, I don't recall that at all."

"And as for using a copy of the souvenir match programme to disable a gun-toting Kiwi fan as he entered the stadium? Well, I don't recall that at all."

As well as the taxi chase scene, the movie is coming under fire for developing a sub-plot in which it turns out that before the 1995 tournament, Pienaar was recruited as a plain-clothes body guard of Nelson Mandela who was working deep undercover to prevent an attack on Mandela's life. According to the events of Invictus, at the start of the World Cup Pienaar suffers a severe concussion and completely forgets about the murderous plot, only to recall the situation just before half time in the World Cup final. Matt Damon is then portrayed foiling an elaborate assassination attempt involving lasers, snipers, beautiful women and killer elephants before managing to save Mandela's life in a nick of time before heading back down to the dressing room and delivering an inspiring and rousing captain's speech to his team-mates.

"I know Hollywood is famous for reinterpreting history for the big screen, but making out that Francois Pienaar had lost his memory before the start of the World Cup and that he was still trying to remember who he was during the final? I mean, come on?" said Stransky. "It is utterly ridiculous. I can assure people Pienaar was with the Springbok team for the whole of the half time break for that match. Utter Hollywood nonsense. I even heard they were going to add something about a food poisoning plot against New Zealand before the final. I mean, really? Who thinks up these crazy schemes?"

If the movie is a financial success Hollywood insiders believe that there could be a glut of other rugby related films to follow. In particular, movie moguls hope to green light a project suggested by Times' (UK newspaper) rugby journalist Stephen Jones in which English prop Andrew Sheridan takes on and defeats King Kong and Godzilla as they try to attack and destroy Twickenham.

James Stafford is editor of The East Terrace ( - an offside view of life in the rugby world

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