Francois Pienaar, South Africa’s victorious Rugby World Cup captain in 1995, had until recently never spoken to Siya Kolisi, the man who lifted the trophy for the Springboks Saturday.
As Pienaar prepared to meet his modern-day counterpart at Sunday’s World Rugby awards, the former Springboks skipper knew exactly what to say: “Thank you.”
Pienaar knows firsthand how winning the Rugby World Cup can transform a nation. He received the Webb Ellis Cup from then President Nelson Mandela shortly after the fall of apartheid, a moment that united a country dogged by racial prejudice.
Events seem to have come full circle 24 years later. Mandela wore a replica of Pienaar’s No.6 jersey when he handed the skipper the trophy in 1995, and last weekend in Yokohama, President Cyril Ramaphosa also sported Kolisi’s No.6 shirt.
“The youngsters that have watched Siya lift that cup and watched the players, they’ll aspire to do the same,” Pienaar told CNN’s Christina Macfarlane after South Africa’s 32-12 victory over England.
“It’s huge and it’s a great platform … It’s going to be insane traveling through South Africa and I hope they do that — take the trophy to the people.”
‘Bigger than 1995’
Kolisi, the first black player to captain the Springboks, is a beacon of hope to young South Africans having grown up in poverty in a Port Elizabeth township.
In his two years leading the team, South Africa has undergone an upturn in fortunes. The Boks were ranked an all-time low of seventh in the world at the start of 2018, but now sit at the top of the rankings with a World Cup and a Rugby Championship title — the southern hemisphere’s principal international tournament — to boot.
Kolisi has spoken often about how the Springboks’ success has been driven by uniting a group of players from different backgrounds, a sentiment that Pienaar shares.
“People don’t know South Africa,” he says. “We’ve got 11 official languages so we’ve got a lot of tribes that have got cultures that they support.
“But then sport comes in and boom — it just brings people together and gels them … the message that (young kids) would have seen about unity, about working together, and that beautiful speech of both the coach and the captain is strong.
“The victory now is much bigger than ’95, the platform is much greater and the opportunity is stronger than the one we had in 1995.”
The Erasmus effect
Pienaar also praised Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus, who lifted South Africa’s restriction on picking players based overseas for the national team. That decision has seen club players from France and England integrated into the Springboks squad
“You look at the players that are plying their trade abroad — Duane Vermeulen has come back, Faf (de Klerk) has come back, Vincent Koch has come back, Francois Louw. I can mention many — Cheslin (Kolbe).
“(Erasmus) has been allowed to do that but he made a really strong point. Then he gets them to perform together. They started getting momentum and there was confidence in the team. He came with a very, very strong pattern of play in the knockout stages.”
South Africa scooped the top prizes at Sunday’s World Rugby awards with Erasmus winning coach of the year, flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit winning player of the year, and the Springboks taking home the team of the year accolade.
As South Africa celebrates arguably its greatest sporting moment, Pienaar takes a moment to reflect on what Mandela would make of it all — Kolisi, Erasmus, and a third Rugby World Cup title.
“Madiba is smiling,” says Pienaar. “He’s smiling from here to here.”