South Africa
1995 Rugby World Cup: Unifying a divided nation
Brittany Mitchell
June 23, 2015
The Springboks celebrate their World Cup victory © Getty Images

It was once a symbol of division, the separation between white and black South Africa, but in the hands of one amazing man it became a symbol of hope, unity and peace. Rugby; once a white man's game became the unifier of a once broken, but now proud nation; and it was Rugby World Cup 1995 that helped pave the way for Nelson Mandela to bring together the 'Rainbow Nation'.

Only making their return to the international stage in 1992, the Springboks had played just a handful of international tests, including five against the Wallabies; losing all but one of those matches. But to bring his nation together, Mandela knew hosting, and then winning, the Rugby World Cup, would unify the divided people of South Africa.

The first step would be to defeat current world champions, the Wallabies. Undefeated in 1994 and early 1995, the Wallabies went into the RWC as clear favourites and were ready to take on the world once again. Full of excitement if racked with nerves, a 22-year-old George Gregan was about to step onto the biggest stage in world rugby in just his second year for the Wallabies. Australia hadn't played in South Africa since their winning tour in 1992 and this would be Gregan's first match against the African nation.

"I was feeling excited but, you know, nervous too," Gregan told ESPN. "It's the biggest tournament in rugby and I'd never played in it before, so I was excited but at the same time not aware of what was ahead. I think I was 22 at that stage; it was only my second full year in the Wallabies jersey so I had no idea in that sense because I'd never been to a World Cup before.

"There was a quiet confidence [in the team] because a lot of the players had won the World Cup back in 1991, and we'd had an undefeated season in '94, there were players who played against South Africa in South Africa in '92 and then in Australia in 1993. So there was a confidence that if we beat them in that first game it would make an easier way through to the play-offs so to speak; so we had a quiet confidence in the group."

Arriving in Cape Town, Gregan along with his team-mates were given their first taste of the new South Africa, and while they witnessed how far the nation had come in the few years since the end of Apartheid, they also had a chance to see just how far the country still had to go.

"We got a great reception, the traditional South African ceremony; they performed a traditional dance at the airport and we were whizzed through customs and got transferred to Cape Town from Johannesburg," Gregan said. "That drive from Cape Town to where we were staying not far from Newlands was an experience. That was my first time obviously being over there and you got a good look at the shanty towns on the way in, and you got a feeling of just how far they had to go in terms of quality of living I think, for all South Africans. But the welcome was very, very warm and it was inspiring too.

"I think it was, because they'd been accepted back into rugby in 1992, it was a chance for them to show how far they'd come in that short period of time, and obviously with Mandela at the helm as President it was a chance to show the world that South Africa had changed for the better. I think they were, not so much nervous, but I think they were just excited to showcase their country."

Two nations became one when Nelson Mandela strode to the centre of the pitch in a Springboks jersey and shook hands with Francois Pienaar, and Oscar winner Morgan Freeman tell the emotional story of that cornerstone moment and what it meant to South Africa's healing process in The 16th Man. Watch The 16th Man in Australia on ESPN on June 24 at 7am (EST) and 11pm (EST), and on ESPN2 at 5pm (EST).

In a match that would start a fairytale run for the Springboks, the defending champion Wallabies were full of confidence as they ran out onto Newlands.

"We'd been used to performing with that pressure and that expectation since 1991 being World Champions, and we'd responded; we'd beaten South Africa at home, we beat New Zealand the year before in Sydney. So we'd beaten everyone who was leading the world up to that stage, so there was a quiet confidence that we could beat anyone.

"That mantra that Bob Dwyer sort of said, that you had to strike with certainty and do this and this to get the job done; and that's how we felt going into that South African game, and it just didn't play out that way. The first 30 or 40 minutes was pretty good, I think they scored just before half-time and that sort of hurt us and then you just felt the crowd and the South African players probably think: 'well we might be a chance of winning this game'.

"It was interesting, the coloured people when we first made it to Cape Town were right behind the Wallaby team, saying 'we're going for you, we want you to beat the Springboks'; which was quite surprising. But what probably was the biggest surprise from that match, was just how much they love the Springboks; when they punched out that national anthem, just the noise behind and the support for their team; they really do love that Springbok team."

Playing in his first World Cup match, Gregan was to experience something totally different from any Test he'd played before. As well as the pressure from a fired-up opposition, he also had to contend with the unconventional but fanatical Springbok fans.

"I think they were always going to put a lot of pressure on me, that's pretty usual, you always put a lot of pressure on the half-back; you know, you had them pouring through the line-out trying to make it really difficult and just create a lot of pressure and that was definitely the case. That's how it always is in Test matches that I'd played up to that stage. But it was the first time playing in an arena like Newlands; where it's really, really loud and their right on top of you. And you're playing South Africa in South Africa and it's a totally different experience to what I'd ever had before. It was a real eye opener.

"They had naartjie fruit, sort of like mandarins, it was like if you were standing on the sideline or waiting for a penalty kick they'd just throw them at you, but it wasn't too bad. I was standing on the sidelines a bit at half, say if you were near the halfway mark on the sidelines, you'd cop it, so like the wingers, but it was for just those few moments."

Shocking the world, the Springboks took down the current giants of rugby and with the growing support of indigenous Africans and the continued support of Mandela; the Springboks swept through the pool rounds, easily put away Western Samoa in the quarter-finals and then downed France in a rain-delayed semi-final. Then against all the odds, the Springboks took down the mighty All Blacks, including Player of the Tournament Jonah Lomu, and in the process united their previously divided nation.

"It [rugby] did, it brought that country together, for sure," Gregan said. "It's funny how it all played out, it didn't go to script for us, but for the Springboks; South Africa; being in the World Cup for the first time; being re-introduced into international sport; hosting one of the biggest sporting events and then winning the World Cup; it was fantastic for bringing the country together and it made a proud country super proud for what it achieved in front of the eyes of the world."

South Africa President Nelson Mandela presents the World Cup to Springboks skipper Francois Pienaar, South Africa v New Zealand, Rugby World Cup Final, Ellis Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, June 24, 1995
The moment that changed a nation © Getty Images

Once a sport for the Afrikaners, rugby and the Springboks became the unifying force for the Rainbow Nation. Returning to South Africa regularly throughout his rugby career, Gregan witnessed the continued changes within the African nation with rugby at the forefront.

"It is [a unifier], and it sort of embraces the whole country," he said. "It used to be just the elite and probably more just the white South African community, but it's now played across the whole of South Africa. Rugby's becoming more and more prominent where you see people like Bryan Habana, the Beast [Tendai Mtawarira] playing for the Sharks and, in my time, Chester Williams, who had a great World Cup.

"Now it's a true representation of South Africa and everyone can play it. I think going to townships and going to places that weren't traditional strongholds or areas for rugby, just to give them a sample shows that growing unity. All kids are the same, they love to play games, they love to run around with the ball, and kick the ball around and rugby ticks all those boxes, and they really do enjoy it.

"Every trip you went back it was becoming more international and becoming more in line with the rest of the world that you travelled. If you travelled to Cape Town now, it's an incredible city, truly international and it just showcases everything that is very good about South Africa. It really has come a long way from the 20 years since I first went there. Cape Town was always beautiful but now it's just grown and has just become a truly international city."

But it wasn't only rugby that saw post-Apartheid South Africa come together. Determined to bring together his once broken nation, Mandela saw the potential in the 15-man game and the love behind the Springboks jersey; a wonderful tournament sealed by the sight of the President presenting Springboks captain Francois Pienaar with the Webb Ellis Trophy in the green jersey once despised throughout the African nation.

"We met [Mandela] and he was sort of introduced to the team before that first game in Cape Town," Gregan said. "And he's one of those amazing people; he has this incredible presence, just a really humble and caring man. And you sensed that just in the few moments before the kick-off, that that was the kind of man he was. He united that country, and those Springboks wanted to play for him and he created this great sense of belief and purpose, not just for those players but for that country during his time."

Two nations became one when Nelson Mandela strode to the centre of the pitch in a Springboks jersey and shook hands with Francois Pienaar, and Oscar winner Morgan Freeman tell the emotional story of that cornerstone moment and what it meant to South Africa's healing process in The 16th Man. Watch The 16th Man in Australia on ESPN on June 24 at 7am (EST) and 11pm (EST), and on ESPN2 at 5pm (EST).

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

Live Sports

Communication error please reload the page.