Standing in the streets of Cape Town last year when the Rugby World Cup-winning Springbok team of 2019 drove past to thank South Africans, Francois Pienaar felt a rush of memories and gratitude about the Boks of 95, which he captained to glory.
Twenty-five years ago, the Springboks united the country like never before when they edged New Zealand by 15-12 in the Rugby World Cup final Johannesburg to win their first-ever world crown.
On 24 June, the world and South Africa will reflect on one of the most iconic moments in sport and speaking on the SA Rugby Podcast, Pienaar shared some of his emotions of the day that united the Rainbow Nation.
The former Springbok captain gave some very interesting insights about that campaign, united behind a “One Team, One Country” slogan, and said they only realised what they could achieve at the business end of the tournament.
In fact, one of their darkest moments as a team proved to be the catalyst for the remainder of the tournament as well.
“Coach Kitch Christie named two sides before the tournament and all the players knew where they were going to play, and who would be missing out on the knock-out stages,” said Pienaar.
“The ‘Battle of Boet Erasmus’ (where the Boks edged Canada in a tough match but lost James Dalton and Pieter Hendriks to suspensions afterwards) almost broke the team, and I don’t think I showed the greatest leadership at the time to be honest.
“As luck would have it though, when we lost Pieter and James, we got Chester Williams back. He was the poster child for the RWC before the tournament, but got injured before the start.
“Chester came in and told us that we were uniting the country. We were fairly isolated from the outside world in that we stayed in the team hotel, took the bus to training and back to the hotel. We were not really aware of what was happening outside, to be honest.
“When Chester came in – and he was not a big talker – and told us what effects our performances were having on the psyche of the country, that was a massive boost to us.
“Up to that stage, we had no idea how much it meant to the rest of the country, we were just focussing on getting through our games.”
Pienaar also eluded to that memorable day 25 years ago, especially when former SA president, the late Mr Nelson Mandela, unexpectedly walked into their change room to wish them luck for the final against the All Blacks.
“On that day – it was scary,” said Pienaar.
“The emotional roller coaster to get to the final, the fact that we were playing an All Black team which included Jonah Lomu…
“On the day, we needed to focus on our execution. We did that. Before the time, Madiba walked into our change room. We did not know he was coming to visit us. It was so emotional, and it could have gone the other way. We had to calm the guys down after that.”
Pienaar believes they played the perfect match: “We had great discipline that day. Managing the margins was crucial. Looking back, we played well that day. Maybe the extra fitness counted in extra time.”