All but ignored by most Americans, the most significant,
uplifting sporting event of 1995 came to its bloody conclusion
last Saturday. Bloody because the sport was rugby, a tackling
game of scrums and cauliflower ears that is little played in the
U.S. but highly popular in much of the rest of the world.
Uplifting? The host country, South Africa, which was barred from
the first two Rugby World Cups, in 1987 and '91, because of its
policy of apartheid, unexpectedly defeated powerful New Zealand
15-12 in overtime in the finals. The win sent the 62,000
spectators in Johannesburg into a dancing, singing frenzy that
spilled into the streets, the culmination of a nationwide rugby
high that had lasted most of June. Significant? Well, for the
first time in the troubled history of Africa's southernmost
nation, whites and nonwhites found themselves united by a sport.
They rooted as one people: in rugby, indivisible.
The championship, wondrous as it was, was in truth froth on the
beer. "The good has all been done," said retired star Naas
Botha, perhaps the greatest rugby player in South African
history, before the 19-15 semifinal victory by the Springboks
(as the South African team is nicknamed) over France. "When we
beat the world champions [the Australians] in the opening match,
it brought the whole country together. It doesn't matter what we
do the rest of the way."
Before this tournament rugby had always been considered a white
man's sport in South Africa. It had been, in fact, a symbol of
white Afrikaner unity and pride dating back to the Boer War. The
1995 Springboks have only one nonwhite player on their roster,
Chester Williams, and while Williams is probably the most
popular player on the team, one man does not make a rainbow
The face of South African rugby at its highest levels remained
predominantly white until President Nelson Mandela -- great
reconciler that he is -- saw the Rugby World Cup as an
opportunity to effect change. The event, after all, was the most
important international championship to be hosted by South
Africa since the fall of apartheid. And it was viewed as a
preliminary test of the viability of a Cape Town bid to host the
Summer Olympics, perhaps as early as 2004, a bid that Mandela
So in May, Mandela reached out. He visited the team's training
camp. He shook hands with the players, patted their strapping
backs and made a point of putting on a Springbok cap. This was
no casual gesture. The nickname Springbok is controversial in
South Africa, strongly associated with the proapartheid white
regimes of the past. Then Mandela pointedly told the rugby
players, "The whole nation is behind you."
The Springboks took that message to heart. The day before their
game against Australia the players requested a tour of Robben
Island, off Cape Town, where Mandela had been imprisoned for 18
years. They visited his former cell and afterward vowed to
dedicate their efforts in the World Cup to their president. The
next day, in a match that galvanized the country, the Springboks
upended the Aussies 27-18. According to one poll, 44% of the
nine million residents of Soweto, the black township on the
outskirts of Johannesburg, said they watched the opening game,
despite the fact that Williams was out with an injury.
The enthusiasm grew from there. White South Africa's sport
became, overnight, South Africa's sport. A headline in The
Sowetan boasted: AMABOKOBOKO, Zulu for "Our Springboks." During
a speech Mandela gave in the town of Ezakheni before the match
against France, the president told his primarily black audience,
"This cap does honor to our boys. I ask you to stand by them
tomorrow because they are our kind."
Our kind. Not black. Not white. South African. The rugby team
became a symbol for the country as a whole -- resolute in the
face of great odds -- not unlike the U.S. Olympic hockey
phenomenon of 1980, when the young gold medalists who beat the
Soviets came to symbolize a spirit of renewal in America. The
Springboks have even begun a campaign designed to encourage
black township residents to pay their utility bills, so that the
rebuilding of all of South Africa could begin.
"Rugby, this great, stupid, odd, confused game," wrote one
former Springbok, Nick Mallett, "had given us its best
attribute: its ability to unite different characters and groups
and create respect, affection and unity."
Given the right time and place, sport is capable of starting
such a process in a society. It is only a start, of course. The
hard work always lies ahead, after the crowds have dispersed and
the headlines have ceased. South Africa's racial and economic
woes are not behind it. Far from it. But thanks to the common
ground supplied by a rugby pitch, those problems appear less
imposing than they did only a month ago.
Do you believe in miracles? In South Africa, they're beginning
COLOR PHOTO:DAVID ROGERS/ALLSPORT In the end, New Zealand could not get a firm grip on Ruben Kruger and the other doughty South Africans. [Ruben Kruger eluding New Zealand players]