2 men would become synonymous with the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Both giants. One in terms of physical stature and one in terms of moral character. One was called Jonah Lomu. The other Nelson Mandela. Lomu was a human juggernaut, capable of inflicting carnage and destruction on the opposing teams. To paraphrase Shakespeare, as Gerald Davies pointed out, ‘like flies to wanton boys were those rugby players to Lomu. He played with them for sport’. The rugby world had never seen anything like Lomu before. And amazingly they almost never did! He had played for the All Blacks the year before and the New Zealand coach was less than impressed, both with his fitness, and his overall talent. He was sent with the New Zealand Sevens team earlier in ’95 to play in a sevens tournament (sevens is a reduced form of rugby. Instead of 15 aside, there are seven, hence the name. Matches last for 14 minutes, with 7 mins a half. There are no line-outs, and scrums are uncontested. It is a much faster form of rugby and requires much higher levels of fitness). He duly impressed and was brought up to the full squad. He would go on to dominate the World Cup.
Nelson Mandela had suffered for his beliefs, and his ethnicity. For more than a quarter of a century he had been imprisoned for demanding rights the rest of us take for granted. To be allowed move freely and without fear in the country of his own birth. For years he had been one of the most feared men in South Africa by the racially oppressive government/regime. Now he was the elected leader and despite possessing all the power of his predecessors, and formers ‘masters’, he showed none of their hatred, ignorance or prejudices. He was happy to share tea with the widow of the man who had been his jail-keeper for so many years. And he extended olive branches to those who had beaten and abused him. He sought to reconcile the two former enemies, blacks and whites, and unite them behind one cause. This cause, he believed, would be the South African Rugby Team (‘Springboks’) winning the Rugby World Cup. They had a tough journey ahead of them, though. The pool draw had not being kind. They would face the reigning champions, Australia, in the first game. Australia had won 18 of their last 22 games.
South Africa had found it difficult to re-enter international rugby. The other countries had moved forward, in terms of talent, during their years of wilderness, and so ‘the Springboks’ struggled in their first few games. They finally found a winning combination in both Coach Kitch Christie, and Captain Francois Pienarr.
Along with manager Morne de Plessis (who as a player had played for South Africa against both Willie John McBride’s ‘Invincible’s’ Lions team of ’74, and captained the ‘Springboks’ against Bill Beaumont’s Lions team of 1980), they prepared South Africa for the World Cup. There was a lot of pressure on the team to show that this ‘Springboks’ was of a new era, with none of the prejudices of old. Unfortunately, the one black player in the squad, Chester Williams, had been injured before the tournament began. And so the ‘Rainbow Nation’ (as the PR campaign was calling South Africa) was looking to be of only one, dominant, colour. Before I forget, one relatively important change had happened in rugby in the 4 years since the last tournament. The IRB had decided to increase the value of scoring a try, from 4 points to 5. This, it was hoped, would increase rugby as a spectacle as it would encourage teams to go for the extra points on offer. Unfortunately, this has also meant that teams were now more willing to concede penalties, as the damage was less costly. Better to stop a try and concede 3 points, than let it be scored and concede 5, or even 7 with a conversion.
The 1995 World Cup kicked off with 2 of the favourites squaring off against each other. Like in 1991, it was also the host nation facing the defending champions. Despite Australia’s better success rate prior to the tournament, they seemed to succumb to the occasion, looking lost and committing errors. South Africa were able to achieve a victory and their first hurdle was cleared. They would now have an easier journey through the qualification stages. Their other pool games were not without controversy, though. Their match against Canada had started over 45 minutes late after a faulty floodlight kept the pitch in darkness and soon dissolved into a brawl, with 2 of their players cited, and subsequently banned from rugby for 3 months. In the end this would prove to be fortuitous, though.
New Zealand were dominating their pool. Although Ireland opened the scoring, and were soon in the lead, New Zealand quickly took over and ended up winning the game, 49-13, with Lomu scoring 2 tries. He scored 2 more against Wales, in a crushing defeat. And the ‘All Blacks’ managed an immense 145-17 victory over Japan. Amazingly Lomu wasn’t even in that game (although the Japan game highlighted the problems faced with 2 teams of differing talents squaring off against each other). Wales and Ireland predictably would be left to fight over 2nd place, with Ireland managing a close victory, in one of the most boring games ever seen, or played. Amazingly Eddie Halvey scored a try while on as a temporary replacement for Denis McBride. Once again Wales had failed to reach the qualifying stages of the World Cup, although this exit was not as embarrassing as their previous one.
Speaking of Western Samoa, they were in a pool with England, Italy and Argentina. England had the easiest of the pools, compared with the other big nations, having no-one to really challenge them. They did suffer a few injuries against Western Samoa, which meant their replacement Scrum-Half and Hooker playing at Flankers.
The last Pool was to feature the most tragic event in World Cup history. The Ivory Coast were making their tournament debut and were relishing the prospect of playing against more noted teams. Unfortunately their inexperience was shown when one of their wingers went incorrectly into a ruck and suffered a paralysing injury. Max Brito remains confined to a wheelchair to this day. Initially the World Cup authorities kept in contact with him, offering financial support but that soon faded out. The Rugby Players association have taken over the responsibility. The 2 top teams in that pool, France and Scotland, contested a hard fought game, with France eking out a victory. The 2 had taken part in one of the only draws in World Cup history when they were pooled together in 1987.
And so the quarter-finals were drawn. England would face Australia, in a repeat of the ’91 final. South Africa had an easier task against Western Samoa. New Zealand had a chance to make it 3 Celtic nations in a row when they faced off against Scotland. And Ireland had a tough contest with France, a team they had not beaten since 1983. ‘The Wallabies’ were unable to harness their winning form of the previous tournament, and went out to a last minute Rob Andrew drop goal. Through a rather controversial decision, South Africa were allowed to replace one of the players banned for fighting in the Canada game and chose Chester Williams. Williams had made a recovery from his injury, and was back with a bang, scoring 4 tries, helping South Africa beat the Samoans. New Zealand made it a clean sweep of the Celts with a win over Scotland, although Scotland put in the best effort, scoring 30 pts (combining the points Wales and Ireland managed against the ‘All Blacks’) before succumbing by 48 pts. Amazingly, 30 pts was the highest points scored against the ‘All Blacks’ in any World Cup before 1999. In the last QF, Ireland once again failed to defeat the French, conceding one of their heaviest defeats.
The 2 semi-finals would prove to be drastically different. England had talked during the week about being able to match the ‘All Blacks’ better than their previous opponents, and were confident having won the last game played between the 2 countries. They also commented that they would be able to properly handle Lomu. This confidence lasted all of a minute. Receiving his first pass, a wayward one, Lomu corrected his balance, pushed off Tony Underwood, ran around Carling, and over Mike Catt. The contest, as such, would be over within the half hour, as New Zealand put in one of the most dominant, crushing displays, ever seen. People were amazed. This was a World Cup Semi-Final?! Lomu added 3 more, each one showing his versatility; he wasn’t just a powerhouse as he could run the 100 metres in just over 10 seconds, and had a neat sidestep. The dominance of New Zealand was underlined by No. 8 Zinzan Brooke, one of the best in the game, kicking a drop-goal from half-way! Feats like these had never being seen in rugby before. England restored some pride in he second half, when both Carling and Rory Underwood scored a brace. But it was too little, too late and New Zealand were in the Final. The second semi-final was in danger of being played as Durban was subjected to weather of biblical proportions. The game was postponed by more than an hour while the conditions were checked. This led to one of the most embarrassing scenes in the tournament, and a reminder of South Africa’s shameful past, a number of black women came out to sweep up some of the rain, not a white person to be seen. This was soon corrected and the match started. The game became a farce with the ball often becoming completely submerged in some areas of the pitch! The referee may have ended the match at half-time, which would have being catastrophic for the ‘Boks’. If the game was ended prematurely, with no tries having been scored, the victory would go to the team with the better disciplinary record. This would be France, and the home support would be livid. Luckily for everyone South Africa scored a try so those fears were put to rest. The game continued into the second half. The French believed they had scored a perfectly legitimate try and were aggrieved when the referee disallowed it. The match ended and South Africa were in the final.
The 2 losing semi-finalists squared off in the 3rd place play-off/bronze medal match, and the only interesting thing to come out of the match was that France finally ended their England bogey, winning the first match in 7 games between the 2 countries. Now it was time for the final. It was apt that the 2 most dominant teams in the tournament would contest the trophy. South Africa and New Zealand had spent most of the 20th Century battling over the unofficial title of ‘Best Team in the World’, now it would be official. Unfortunately the game lacked as a spectacle, but had elements of passion and drama. Both out-half’s traded penalties throughout the game. South Africa had finally found a way to half the juggernaut Lomu and kept him from dominating. The game finished even so extra time would be played. It what was the longest game ever played up to that point, South Africa finally kicked the winning points with a drop goal from Joel Stransky. The whole of South Africa were elated. The Captain Pienarr summed it up perfectly: when asked what it was like having the support of the Jo’burg crowd of 63,000, he responded that they had the support of 43 million South Africans. All seemed right with the world and the perfect moment was capped with Mandela presenting the trophy to the Captain, each thanking the other for their contribution. The victory was not without controversy, as the ‘All Blacks’ alleged that their food had been tampered with, and Chester Williams alleged that he had being the victim of racial abuse from his own team-mates. The ‘New Era’ for South Africa seemed to be a bit of a false dawn, but for the moment the ‘Springboks’ could celebrate their return to Rugby Union properly as World Champions.