Rugby World Cup
Is South Africa the Rainbow Nation 20 years after Rugby World Cup glory?
Tom Hamilton
September 17, 2015
Will South Africa dominate Pool B?

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- When South African rugby union captain Francois Pienaar is asked about his greatest achievement -- winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup -- his answer is tinged with regret.

"A big opportunity was missed post-1995, a massive opportunity," he said in an interview with ESPN. "There was such a collectiveness and there was an incredible opportunity to grow the game. Mistakes were made. It was incredibly sad. It was the worst time of my rugby life, post the World Cup. It should have been a time of planning, celebration and growth, but it was the toughest and saddest time."

Play ESPNfootytips Rugby World Cup Tipping

Twenty years on from that moment, South Africa are aiming to win the World Cup for a third time -- they also won in 2007. Once again, they are one of the favourites, but the team are still struggling with the legacy of that first victory and the hopes that it would spearhead the nation's "transformation" after years of apartheid.

Before the 1995 World Cup, the Springboks had been a potent symbol of white South African rule, but when President Nelson Mandela donned the green shirt of the national rugby team, led the support and eventually presented the trophy, it was a hugely symbolic moment. That South African team featured just one non-white player, Chester Williams, but he felt it was a sign of South Africa's huge potential.

"It [1995] showed what we can achieve -- if we stand together, we are a powerful nation," Williams said.

Nelson Mandela, Francois Pienaar
Nelson Mandela, Francois Pienaar© JEAN-PIERRE MULLER/AFP/Getty Images

For this World Cup, the South African squad includes eight black players, and yet a week before the tournament, the country's Rugby Union president, Oregan Hoskins, felt compelled to issue a strongly-worded statement:

"Let us get one thing absolutely clear: Our sport is massively transformed from where it was in 1992. The idea of an 'exclusive', 'white-dominated' game is frankly laughable ... So, no one needs to lecture us about the importance of transformation -- we got there long ago."

The latest incarnation of the Strategic Transformation Plan -- a joint document published by the government and South African Rugby Union (SARU) outlining the hopes for the racial makeup of the Springboks in four years' time -- was published in February. The aim is to have a 50/50 split of white and non-white players by the 2019 World Cup. There are eight black players in the squad for the 2015 tournament.

Hoskins himself is one of those who has undergone his own personal transformation. As the president of the SARU and de facto most powerful figure in the country's rugby scene contemplated the moment he made a decision to end his hatred of the Springbok -- a symbol that for so many years was associated with apartheid -- he paused to collect his emotions.

Sitting in a Cape Town hotel, Hoskins sports a replica Springboks jersey. The shirt is a nice fit, but for so long in his life the thought of wearing the jersey was incomprehensible. The first question of the interview stripped back any notion of the usual political platitudes you are met with when talking to the game's key stakeholders.

"I remember watching the 1974 British Lions tour of South Africa and I knew more Lions names than the South Africans," Hoskins said. "It was a really tough one [when he started supporting the Springboks]. I remember watching the '95 final at my mother's house ... I didn't really watch the rugby, but watched Mr. Mandela. I know we won but I had come from a time where I was anti the South Africa team due to apartheid."

The key event came when Hoskins was asked to present the jerseys to the team in what he describes as "a sacred event."

Play ESPNfootytips Rugby World Cup Tipping

"I had to do some soul-searching before agreeing to it. I was trying to think of what I would say so I said, 'Let me be honest with you.' I stood up and said, 'I despised this team because of apartheid; this team was the enemy.'

"When I stood there before them, I had to decide: Where do my true feelings lie? I had taken on the job and I could have taken it on for political reasons and said I will do whatever's necessary from a political point of view. But I did some soul-searching and that was the defining moment for me. I looked at the team that day and I had to be true to myself, true to the team and to the job. I said, 'You guys are my players, you guys are my team.'"

At this point the emotion shows in his eyes. "That was the defining time for me," he said.

At the end of August, Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer unveiled his Rugby World Cup squad, and the country's sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, issued a 1,660-word statement applauding the selection.

Part of it reads: "The selection of 11 generic black players of the 31 players as part of the IRB World Cup Team demonstrate our progression and SARU's abiding commitments to achieving the set targets. We are all agreed within the sporting movement that transformation is a strategic and moral imperative and therefore a non-negotiable.

"It is for these reasons that we call on all South Africans to support our national team ... We must don our green and gold jerseys from now on and throughout the World Cup as a demonstration of a united country that acknowledges its divided past but continues to strive for a non-racial, democratic and united South Africa."

The announcement was bookended by verbal complaints of racial discontent lobbed in Meyer's direction. Prior to the announcement, a trade union -- Cosatu -- said five black Springboks had come to them complaining about the lack of transformation in the national side and called for Meyer to go.

Just weeks before the tournament, a little-known South African political party, The Agency for New Agenda, mounted a legal challenge to stop South Africa from appearing in this World Cup, saying, "Although much has been done to transform the country, the national team's rugby selection criteria are racially exclusionary and biased in favour of whites. It has betrayed the trust of millions of South Africans, continues to resist change and should attract the severest sanctions possible." Their legal bid failed but highlighted the ongoing issues.

The challenges facing South African rugby at the moment include halting the player drain -- the weak rand is doing the country's rugby franchises no favours when it comes to holding on to their best players, especially when stacks of pounds, euro and yen are fanned in front of their eyes -- but for the administrators at the top of the game, they are under constant political pressure to accelerate the process of transformation.

"We are still dealing with some of the same issues as we were in 1995: issues with identities, economic fairness and a common nationhood," Hoskins said. "Take nothing away from '95 but it wasn't an end in itself, it was the start of a journey that's still on a long road."


Back in 1995, a year after their first democratic election, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup. It finished with Nelson Mandela, sporting the green and gold jersey, handing the Webb Ellis Cup to captain Francois Pienaar. It was an image to show the marrying of the new South Africa, but it was still a country trying to find its feet.

Just five years before that, many white South African families were stockpiling canned goods in preparation for Mandela's release. There was a fear that his liberation would trigger a bloody retribution for the years of oppression. A walk around Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum shows vivid footage of the violence that threatened to boil over into a civil war as the various leaders attempted to thrash out an end to apartheid. But Mandela did the impossible of appealing to different creeds, races and perspectives in a divided country.

Mandela caused hearts to flutter with his opening speech for the tournament due to his style of public speaking. Sitting and watching Mandela was the director general of the department for sport and recreation, Mthobi Tyamzashe.

"Mr. Mandela used to pause during his sentences," Tyamzashe remembered. "He had such a unique way of talking. He said, 'There will ... never be ... another ... World Cup,' at which point there is the sharpest intake of breath you have heard, only for him to continue: ' ... like this ... ever again.'" And off the World Cup went. There was no bloodshed off the field and with the most wonderful nature of predestination Mandela handed the blond, Afrikaner Pienaar the Webb Ellis Cup. It was "The Rainbow Nation" in wonderful Technicolor.

To tell the tale of where South African rugby is in 2015 and just where the pace of transformation is, the weeks following the World Cup 20 years ago are key.

"The flame of unity lasted barely days," is the assessment of Edward Griffiths, who was then SARU CEO. "Everything can be traced back to what followed the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which was the struggle for the future of the game."

Before the final was played, the sport was on the verge of turning professional and was a rag doll between two rival factions, each looking to purchase the game. The players were being offered huge amounts of money to turn their back on the unions to sign for a rival organisation looking to form The World Rugby Corporation (TWRC), a plan funded by Kerry Packer and fronted by ex-Wallaby Ross Turnbull. They had plans to take the game worldwide, with matches in Houston proposed. The moves were similar to those that fractured and then revolutionised cricket in the late 1970s with Packer's breakaway World Series Cricket.

That the players were being courted, with some signing for TWRC, irked the national unions. Players around the world had signed with Packer, but then came BSkyB and Rupert Murdoch to offer $550 million (U.S.) to form Super Rugby and the Tri-Nations. The unions sided with Murdoch, the players backed out of their deals with Packer and the sport needed to regather itself.

"The relationship between SA Rugby and the players began to deteriorate gradually," Griffiths said.

Rugby was now financially safeguarded, but it meant the sport had to accelerate into professionalism when the various stakeholders -- Dr. Louis Luyt, president of SARU included -- wanted to take it at a more sedentary pace.

Griffiths told ESPN: "I was the first one to go and I left in February 1996 and then Kitch Christie [head coach of the Springboks] was relieved of his duties as coach and Francois Pienaar was then dropped and Morne du Plessis left as manager. Within 15 months of the final, the four key people within the 1995 campaign were no longer in their positions."

Francois Pienaar, Hannes Strydom
Francois Pienaar, Hannes Strydom© PHILIP LITTLETON/AFP/Getty Images

Pienaar added, "We stumbled into professionalism and it was managed by people who were amateur.

"People got on to planes and saw the world of professionalism and saw franchises. In the years of apartheid, our test match arenas were the provinces -- the Lions, the Bulls, the Province, Natal. They were so strong and in 1997 they came up with franchises and amalgamated the teams. They took the Orange Free State and the Lions and made the Cats. It alienated the supporters and the players became journeymen. My father was a strong Lions supporter, but with a new brand and identity he was disenfranchised and that stumbled on for a while. That took a while to rectify itself; a massive opportunity was missed."

It wasn't meant to be like that. The opportunity for the post-World Cup legacy seemed sound. One of the goals was "Operation Rugby," meant to take the sport to the untapped hotbeds of the country; the "Rainbow Nation," a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was set to have rugby in every corner.

"The plan was to identify 40 venues in underprivileged areas and venues where we could put World Cup profits," Griffiths said. "At the end of the day you didn't have to sell the game, it was already deeply rooted along the southern coast but they were playing in appalling conditions and with poor coaching and equipment.

"From a much, much lower base there were literally millions of black South Africans who had been playing rugby for generations. All we needed to do would be to provide coaching and equipment to these communities which was the heart of 'Operation Rugby.'

"The aim was to fill that deficit. The problem was people in South African Rugby, even in the wake of 1995, regarded rugby as the last area of South African society that was to be controlled by whites. They saw it as the last element of society that was controlled by whites and defended it at all costs. When I was removed from SARU one of the executive members said the reason I needed to go was because I was giving rugby to the blacks -- which I took as a great compliment."


Transformation has been a political minefield for South African sports. Since 1994 there has been talk of racial quotas in the rugby team. The first attempts failed in rugby, and by 1998 cricket had the "target transformation policy." Rugby was still trying to get its respective house in order and the 1999 racial quotas in the Currie Cup, a provincial competition, and Vodacom Cup, a second-tier tournament played during Super Rugby, only lasted until 2004.

The government was also seemingly in a spin. Cricket quotas were scrapped in 2002 and by 2007 sports minister Makhenkesi Stofile ruled out future use of quotas. But in 2005, a quotation from Stofile himself had illustrated the political rag doll issue that had become South African rugby.

"The need to win should be made subordinate to the need to transform the racial composition of teams," Stofile said at the time, "because if a predominantly white sports team wins, South Africa still loses."

The official party line now is that there are no quotas in professional rugby in South Africa, but not everyone believes that. Kobus Wiese, a towering behemoth of a man, is a key voice in the South African rugby scene, having been an instrumental part of the 1995 World Cup side, and is now part of Supersport's extensive coverage of the game. But even he -- a man who constantly reiterates "I am a proud patron of this country" -- is frustrated by talk of quotas.

"If SARU and the government says 'there will be a quota system, that's the rule.' But they keep on denying it and it's pissing off the public even more. Play open cards, we all get over it, we take an aspirin and get over it. There's no bulls--- then."

The current Springboks coach, Meyer, cannot be so definitive on the issue. He gives wonderfully long answers to questions surrounding his coaching ethos and game plan, but when it comes to transformation, he shifts awkwardly, fully aware that whatever he says will be interpreted differently the country over.

"It's part of the job, but it's difficult for me to talk about. We have a responsibility to bring the best players through and that's what we aim for."

Heyneke Meyer speaks to ESPN
Heyneke Meyer speaks to ESPN© Shaun Roy/Gallo Images for ESPN

Hoskins could be more forthright, and said the current pace of transformation is intrinsically linked with the pace of the country's political sphere.

"Now in 2015, rugby is criticised as a sport that isn't transformed by the politicians in particular and it is very difficult in 21 years or so to undo a historical legacy that led to a massive class divide, a massive racial divide. To undo it in just over two decades is asking too much. If I had a magic wand, I would transform rugby tomorrow, but transforming rugby means transforming the socioeconomic landscape of South Africa, and that can't be done overnight."

Hoskins added, "It's important politicians understand it's easy to be in political office and say we should have a black Springbok team, but the fact of the matter is that when I'm gone, the next guy won't be able to change the socioeconomic landscape.

"Rugby's a good barometer of where we are as a country regarding our socioeconomics. The black kids still have to catch up with the big white kids. The leadership has to ensure South Africa reaches its economic and political potential. I can't change the socioeconomic landscape in a few years. I'm not Jesus."

Even Archbishop Tutu expressed his frustration at the pace of transformation in a letter to the Cape Times in 2012.

It is a subjective issue with a wide range of opinions. Qondakele Sompondo is a well-known voice in the Eastern Cape's rugby circles and he views the lack of black players in the Springboks side as a conscious decision by those in power -- one to keep the white status quo.


The Eastern Cape is held as the beacon of hope for unearthing the future black Springboks.

"There are more registered players in the Eastern Cape than in the whole of Australia," said Rudolf Straeuli, the ex-Springboks player, coach and now CEO of the Lions.

Tasked with developing the potential is the Eastern Province's academy manager, Robbie Kempson. It has been a frustrating process. Fourteen unions make up SARU. Four are in the Eastern Cape, but only the Eastern Province unions are showing any signs of progress. Border has collapsed amid political upheaval while Southern Western Districts are flatlining, and Boland are looking to be going the same way as Border.

Next year the area will have a franchise to sit atop of their four unions, but without such a presence for the past two seasons since the Southern Kings' last foray in Super Rugby, Kempson has spent his time developing these players only to see them pinched by other franchises.

"Retaining the talent is difficult with the larger unions buying everyone," he said with a sigh.

The recent Craven Week saw Gray College's Curwin Bosch, a fly-half, emerge as the brightest star in the U18 Eastern Province team, but he has already been snapped up by the Sharks. The Bulls have signed their promising No. 8 Kwezi Mafu. The original plans from 1995 were to establish bases in these areas to keep this burgeoning talent in its natural environment. As South African rugby is finding to its cost, plucking a young player away from his home can have an adverse effect. There have been unrivaled talents who have dropped off the radar due to struggling to adapt to their new environments.

Sitting in a sparse office with piles of kit hugging one wall, Kempson explained how the academy at the Eastern Province, one which includes both U19 and U21 teams, has just 36 players. It is a small project by South Africa's standards -- the Western Province's U19 programme has in the region of 55 players.

But in an area which does not boast the financial clout of the Western Province, basic nutrition is an issue. The province itself is struggling financially. With South African rugby traditionally deemed as a place for giants, it is hard to push the bright prospects through on size alone, so Kempson looks to other points of difference.

"South African rugby has this infatuation with size, but we don't have that. Like it or not, your black players are never going to be 1.98m forwards and those you do get of those size have already been bought by the other provinces. We want to build a skill set so instead of being bigger, we want to be fitter, better at skills and stronger because the size component means we will never compete in that area."

Chester Williams poses in front of his picture
Chester Williams poses in front of his picture© Shaun Roy/Gallo Images for ESPN

Naas Botha, Springbok legend, concurred: "Look at a guy like [Wales'] Shane Williams. He wouldn't make too many sides in South Africa, he might ... but as a water boy ... Rugby's meant to be the game that accommodates everybody... We are obsessed with getting over the advantage line. You can do it in other ways! You can drift and beat the defender instead of just running over the man. If you have a tree in front of you, you go around the branches rather than straight into the trunk of the tree. We have the ballplayers to do that."

Chester Williams is frequently bombarded on the subject of transformation and quotas. As the sole non-white player in the 1995 World Cup-winning squad he was in the spotlight like never before.

"I enjoyed it but I knew I was under massive pressure," Williams said.

Now he is seen as a statesman for players of colour in South Africa. It is a frustrating issue for him.

"You must scrap quotas but I still think there must be opportunities for the black players," he said. "You must give them more than one chance -- they need to show confidence.

"They aren't given sufficient opportunities. I refer to them as opportunities instead of calling them development players because theoretically Bryan Habana is still a quota player but he has over 100 caps -- he isn't one. That's my biggest concern, as I don't think the players are getting a chance -- the opportunity."

Unbeknownst to Williams, sitting in the Ellis Park stands, keeping an intent eye on him against the All Blacks in the World Cup final was a 12-year-old Habana. Perhaps he is the greatest legacy of 1995.

Bryan Habana's 1995 Rugby World Cup final T-shirt
Bryan Habana's 1995 Rugby World Cup final T-shirt© Bryan Habana

"He's our David Beckham," Morne du Plessis said with a smile as we talked about the impact Habana has had on South African rugby. It was the 1995 Rugby World Cup that changed Habana's focus in life; seeing Williams score the tries and the impact it had on the country's people saw the start of a journey to Springbok immortality.

Habana is one of five players to break the 100-cap mark and an electric winger who starred in their 2007 World Cup triumph.

He told ESPN: "Hopefully, I've broken down preconceptions. I haven't come from a disadvantage, I went to the best schools and got supported by a wonderful family and my father pushed me to the goals I wanted to achieve so there was never a stage of my life where I wasn't provided for. I'm not sure how those from disadvantaged backgrounds see me.

"Political situations may have made it easier for me to stay in the team but I don't think that's why I have played that many games. There will always be people who want more but as players, the best we can do is go out there and play winning rugby, which gives hope back to the nation." 

More on Habana's story here.


Back to Cape Town, where former Springboks hooker Dale Santon is sat on the side of the University's rugby field, a stretch they label "The Green Mile." The Western Province have just finished a light training session on the pitch next to ours and Demetri Catrakilis and Juan de Jongh stop to watch the action on the No.1 field. It is the under-15 final of the Legends Cup, the tournament which forms part of the SA Rugby Legends' grassroots programme.

Bryan Habana of South Africa holds the Webb Ellis trophy
Bryan Habana of South Africa holds the Webb Ellis trophy© Duif du Toit/Gallo Images/Getty Images

It is in the second half and the Athlone Hungry Lions are winning 5-3 against the Elsies River Cobras. The star of the show has been the Lions' No. 12, Thoubaan Gabriels. His try had given his team the lead and midway through the second stanza, his side are awarded a penalty just inside the Cobras' half.

Thoubaan has been waiting for this opportunity. It is about 48 metres out to the right of the posts and the 14-year-old signals for the tee. A brief run up and with the sweetest of strikes the ball sails through the air only to clip the upright. It had comfortably another 10 metres if needed. The radar was slightly off but his potential is frightening. But barring some unparalleled stroke of fortune, Thoubaan will not be a professional rugby player or get anywhere near it.

"It's a hungry lion, South African rugby," Santon said. "But you have to be privileged to get anywhere near the top. My father always used to say: 'Everyone is lucky but only a few are chosen.'

"He [Thoubaan] won't get the chance, he's too small. South Africa has so many players available. It's like a child with a table full of sweets. If you don't like them, you throw it away and get another one."

There isn't a white player on the field. The conversation turns to transformation and whether quotas are present in the game from grassroots up to the Springboks.

"Ach, if someone calls me a quota player, they may as well call me a [a South African ethnic slur]," Santon said.

© SA Rugby Legends

To the outsider, it seems remarkable that amid all the pressures of transformation, the scrutiny over size, quotas and sociopolitical uncertainty, the Springboks keep on being one of the world's best sides. They are the most monumental symbol of hope, but they are an outlier.


Leading South Africa into the World Cup will be Jean de Villiers, after battling back from what many would have succumbed to as a career-ending injury. Last November, against Wales at the Millennium Stadium, De Villiers was standing on the outside of the breakdown when several players involved in a ruck fell down onto the player. It was a knee injury that would require a full reconstruction of the anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments.

"My immediate thoughts were, 'That's it,'" de Villiers said. "If I was to be able to play with my kids again, that would be sufficient. It was a hectic injury. Having played for so long, you know when it's bad but you always know when it's really bad.

"With my foot touching my ear, you know it's really bad. Our assistant coach Johann van Graan was the fourth guy who got on to the field and I told him this was not the way I wanted it to end; he just said, 'Don't worry, everything will work out.' That instantly changed my mindset. Seven months later, here I am. It's been an unbelievable journey -- the proof is in the pudding, though."

In the foyer of the hotel we are talking in, a ribbon is laid out on one of the tables. Visitors and residents are encouraged to pen a message to the Springboks, with each ribbon from hotels around the country eventually forming a big flag which was presented to the team before they flew to England for the World Cup. The country is getting that buzz again.

When he was lying on the turf at the Millennium Stadium, de Villiiers' World Cup was teetering on the abyss. He has played just 180 minutes in the three World Cups he has been a part of; the injury curse looked to have struck again. But then came that feeling of hope, hope that he would be fit to play in this month's tournament.

© Shaun Roy/Gallo Images

The country watched on as Supersport broadcast the documentary of his recovery. The Springboks' captain had become an awkward reality television star. And that perhaps highlights how important this team still are to the country.

"Everything pins off the Springboks," former national coach Rudolph Straeuli said. "That's how it should be. We're all in our little pockets -- Joburg, Cape Town, Durban -- with different cultures, but if the national side plays, it does bring people together. We react to that."

The morning before South Africa take on Australia in Brisbane, the country celebrated Mandela Day. Each citizen was encouraged to invest 67 minutes of their time -- 67 being the number of years Mandela was politically active -- into charity work. We arrived at the gym in the Soweto branch of Johannesburg University to drop off blankets for an initiative that saw the hall full of Sowetan residents knitting scarves for charity. Amid the pockets of people were Springboks shirts. This was an area that would have previously hated the symbol but now, while Graca Machel, Mandela's third wife, was addressing the room, there were dots of green and gold.

The "One country, one team" slogan of the 1995 World Cup is still in evidence in some parts of the country today. There will be those who are vehemently opposed to the Springboks -- time is not always the ultimate healer -- but de Villiers is aware the country needs a successful rugby team more than ever. The Springboks captain wears an unparalleled pressure.

"The captaincy of every national team has a lot of pressure that goes with it. South Africa being so different and with rugby playing such a big part in the unity of the country and a lot of people still see it as the tool which brings it all together," de Villiers says. He hugged the cushion tighter as he continued to talk. "That adds a lot of pressure. But it also creates an opportunity to change lives.

"People do look up to you and given the captaincy you really can make a difference and give hope which can pull anyone through a situation. Hope got me through this injury -- the hope I'd be able to play for my country again and in a Rugby World Cup ... When you play for the Springboks you carry the hopes of the country and I think it's the reason why we do it.

"Now more than ever we need positive results and a successful World Cup. We need to show the country what it means to us."

© Tom Hamilton
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.

Live Sports

Communication error please reload the page.