The Rugby World Cup had become a roaring success. The first two tournaments had brought millions of new fans to the game and advanced the game in ways unimagined even 10 years before. Despite all the triumphs, though, there was still something missing from the tournament. Something very big. South Africa.
Rugby was brought to South Africa through colonists, with the first major games taking place during the British tours (later the Lions) of 1891 and 1896. Although severely outclassed in the first tour (losing all matches and scoring only a single point in 20 games) they had made great strides by the time of the second tour and managed to draw one game and win the final test (okay, maybe not great strides but still they were improving). Such was their improvement by the time of the 1903 tour, that they managed to actually win the test series. They would continue to beat the Lions in every series they played until 1955 (which was a draw), and have only lost 2 subsequent tours (1974 and 1997). For most of the 20th Century they had battled with New Zealand over the unofficial title of ‘Best Rugby team in the World’. But something had being threatening their superiority on the rugby field. Something that had started in colonial times.
Apartheid was made official in South Africa in 1948, and from its inception it seemed to go hand in hand with rugby there. The ‘Springboks’ (the nickname for the South African rugby team) were seen by the majority black population as the physical manifestation of Apartheid and the Whites, and especially Afrikanners, saw rugby as a chance to express their physical superiority and manhood. It wasn’t long after the system of Apartheid was implemented that protests started against it. These increased and intensified in the 60’s and 70’s, with attention especially on the Lions tour of 1974. Many MP’s and campaigners appealed with the players to refuse to tour, and many players were barred from touring by their employers. The 1980 Lions tour was expected to generate even more negative publicity. But luckily for the players and rugby people in general, the US decided to boycott the Olympic Games that year so most of the attention was focused on this. Protests were still taking place, with people against the idea of South Africa touring other countries (in the late -60’s venues would have to be secretly changed to prevent games being disrupted), and being toured themselves. The South Africa/New Zealand series in 1981 was the scene of some of the worst of the protests, with pitches being invaded by fans that refused to move and players being flour-bombed!. The IRB finally took notice and banned all contact with South Africa (although SA were still aloud have a representative on the IRB! This really hit home with the South African people and they were sick of being seen as the international pariah, and of the chance of showing their superiority. There ostracisation from rugby hurt especially when the World Cup started and so serious steps were taken. Nelson Mandela was released from prison and new systems were put in place to abolish Apartheid. South Africa were allowed return to the Rugby fold and immediately started on a series of internationals to catch up on lost time.
Unfortunately, while players in South Africa would have to contend themselves with playing against themselves in inter-club and –provincial games, the rest of the rugby world had moved on. The ‘Springboks’ lack of big-match practices showed in their losing their first 10 games. There were also problems within South Africa relating to doubts about Apartheid’s status. Many of the oppressed still saw the ‘Springboks’ as a symbol of their oppression. When Mandela was elected in 1994 he quickly took steps to change peoples opinions. He himself had being one to cheer on the opposition teams when they played his oppressors in rugby so he knew how some of his contemporise felt. He also knew that completely changing everything about the rugby team would alienate the whites. He decided to keep the name and emblem of ‘Springboks’ and change the national anthem from ‘Die Stem’ to the anti-apartheid hymn ‘Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika’. In later years the two would be combined. Making the rugby team more appealing was also helped by the introduction of Chester Williams, the first black player for South Africa in many years. For the first time in history all of South Africa would be able to get behind their rugby team with confidence. South Africa would be able to show off this new unity to the world as they would be given the task of hosting the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the first to take place in one country. During both previous tournaments South African fans at scoffed at the tournament being considered ‘World’ without their involvement. They even believed that they would have won both if they had been there. Now they had a chance to prove their theory.
These had progressed for other countries during the last tournament. England had lost the final, but they went into the 1992 5 Nations with good confidence and managed to win the Grand Slam, making it back-to-back wins for them (they won in 1991 as well). They also managed to beat New Zealand (in 1993) and South Africa (1994) as well. Although they suffered back-to-back defeats to Ireland (yay! ’93 and ’94) and defeat to Wales (’93), they still won the Grand Slam in 1995 (making it 3 in 5 years). They seemed to be the Northern Hemispheres best chance of bringing home the trophy. Something unforeseen, though, seriously affected their chances almost on the eve of their departure. Will Carling, the English captain, was giving a radio interview, about the FAQ topic of professionalism in rugby. While believing his microphone was turned off he made a statement describing the RFU (governing body of English rugby) as ’57 old farts’. This got back to the farts and they were suitably furious and decided to remove him from his position outright. Unfortunately for them they overestimated their importance to the players. Not having a care for the perceived slight the players decided to stand with their ousted captain and refused to budge from his side. The RFU were now faced with the unenviable task of, either apologising to Carling or picking 30 completely new and untested players to send to the World Cup. Luckily cooler heads prevailed and both sides were able to leave with some dignity intact. Carling was reappointed and the English squad set sail. Funny thing about Carling. He doesn’t seem to get the respect he deserves. Before he took over England were around the middle of the 5 Nations table. Winning 2 games in a year was seen as a good showing. He proceeded to lead them to 3 Grand Slams, a World Cup final and victories over Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. England only lost one match in the ’89, ’90 and ’94 tournaments, as well which meant they could have won 6 Grand Slams in 7 years. Carling wasn’t exactly the most popular of men, though (despite the team rallying around him). There’s a great story about his team Harlequins playing against Leicester (bear in mind that both rugby teams have 15 men each and there’s one ref on the field. This helps to remember for the story). Carling is tackled to the ground and a ruck forms. Boots are flying in at all angles and the ref finally blows his whistle. A yell is heard and Carling appears with blood streaming from his head wound. He demands that the ref find the guilty party that raked him. Only for his own no.8 to pipe in ‘actually Will it could have being any of the 29 of us!’ The ref comments ‘you mean 30 of us!’
Scotland had being unable to build on their Grand Slam win of 1990 and their semi-final appearance and were still languishing around the middle of the table. Ireland had done well to beat England back-to-back but it says a lot about our fortunes at the time that were still boasting about it nearly 20 years later. Ireland were often competing with Wales for the Wooden Spoon in these years. Wales had not improved their fortunes. Despite winning a 5 Nations title in 1994 they still found themselves most years competing not to be last. They had even brought in a QC Vernon Pugh to oversee their dire situation. Pugh later took ran for a position on the Welsh Rugby Union, and was quickly elected President. Luckily for him was that it was Wales year to preside over the IRB, so Pugh had gone from a complete outsider to head of the International Rugby Board. His election would lead to the most monumental change in rugby since the breakaway of the Northern Unions back a 100 years ago. But more on that later. Amateurism was a hot topic around this time with the days of rugby players playing for sheer recreation and love of the game seemingly numbered. The writing was on the well. Some of the unions seemed illiterate, though. Here’s one story to highlight this: the IRFU held a press conference just as the squad were about to depart for the ’95 tournament. What was the point of the press conference you ask? To discuss Irelands hopes for the tournament? They were to be pooled with both Wales and New Zealand, which meant that a quarter final place was by no means a certainty. Nothing of the sort. The sole point was to express the archaic view that rugby good still be enjoyed to the fullest by players during their leisure time! Amazingly rugby would become professional less than 6 months later.
Fortunes had changed for teams in the Southern Hemisphere. Results had being mixed for New Zealand. Although they beat the ’93 Lions 2-1, they lost to England away, and to France at home 2-nil. They had managed to collect a superior squad of players however and with a giant colossus on the wing, they seemed capable of doing serious damage.