In today’s instalment of The Glory of ’95 series, focussing on the historic 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, Mike Greenaway looks back at the opening match between the Springboks and the Wallabies.
JUST a few months before I began my career as a rugby writer, I watched the opening game of the 1995 World Cup in the company of three Welshmen, who had come to South Africa to play rugby at my club, Amanzimtoti.
We were in a sports bar in Warner Beach, the KwaZulu-Natal seaside village that former Wallaby Clyde Rathbone calls home, and the venue was exploding with atmosphere.
The Welsh guys, all of them young school teachers, were incredulous. All of that day they had seen cars bedecked in the colours of the rainbow nation, drivers tooting at each other in festive fervour. Everywhere were fans in green and gold; side mirrors of cars were coloured with the SA national flag.
I have remained in warm contact with those Welshmen to this day, such is the power of sport to forge friendships, and 25 years on from us watching the Springboks beat the Wallabies in that opening game, I asked them for their memories of that day.
John Dodds, speaking from Bridgend, told me he had been overwhelmed. “We were watching on that big screen and just before kickoff the crowd was chanting ‘Nelson! Nelson!’ And I turned to my mates and said: ‘We are very lucky to be in this country at this time. There is something special happening here. We are watching history,’” Dodds said.
The first half of the match was incredibly close and it was Pieter Hendriks’ try just before halftime that broke the tension. The eruption of euphoria across SA was unbridled.
“It was huge to see the passion for the game in South Africa as the fans in that pub went crazy,” said Jason Lewis, also from Bridgend. “We love our rugby in Wales, but to see how much that game meant to people gave me goose bumps. I remember that clearly. You had the feeling that that game was more than just about rugby.”
There was sheer bedlam as Hendricks rounded David Campese and crossed the tryline, fist pumped in elation. The Boks had been given no chance of beating the reigning champions and most critics did not think the host nation would make it past the quarter-finals, but that moment – that had the world’s greatest player (at the time) floundering on the Newlands turf while Hendriks raced home for a try – released the pressure and the nation gave birth to belief… The eruption of joy and relief across SA was staggering.
“The celebrations after the game and then onwards over the tournament were incredibly special – it was a privilege to be in South Africa at that time,” Geraint Kathrens told me from Abercynon. “The atmosphere was amazing and there was so much positivity in South Africa. As outsiders, all we had known of South Africa were news clips about apartheid and a lot of our friends said we were mad to go to South Africa to play rugby, and that we would end up trapped in a civil war,” Kathrens recalled.
“But we were determined to come and we found that there were a lot of false claims about the people of South Africa, black or white. We only experienced people with an open mind to improving the situation in South Africa.”
That pressure-cooker release for the Boks and their growing army of fans was also because the team was now on coach Kitch Christie’s fabled “high road” to the final, which meant avoiding the highly favoured teams from New Zealand and England in the initial playoffs. The Boks would now almost certainly finish top of Group A and were on course for “winnable” quarter-finals and semi-finals against Western Samoa, Wales, Italy, Argentina, Ireland or France.
Of those countries, at that time, only formidable France were a threat to the Boks on that side of the draw.
But, and I remember this vividly, Francois Pienaar afforded himself only a brief celebration at the final whistle before running off the field with a blank stare. He understood that beating the Australians in round one was only the beginning …