I feel privileged to have broken bread with Francois Pienaar. Over dinner one night, Pienaar spoke about the importance of sport in South Africa and how his famous moment with Nelson Mandela in 1995 helped to cross so many divides.
It seemed effortless for him to talk about this, in that he carried the responsibility with grace and humility. The moment will never fade. Just like the image from Yokohama last Saturday of Siya Kolisi lifting the Webb Ellis trophy.
The link between Pienaar and Kolisi was palpable when the camera zoomed to the 1995 captain after Cheslin Kolbe bamboozled Owen Farrell and sped away from Billy Vunipola to hammer the final nail in the English coffin.
You could see the joy on Pienaar’s face. You knew what it meant to the people of South Africa, regardless of race or background, mainly because this team represents most races and backgrounds in a deeply complex country.
Pienaar knows he is a symbol of the rainbow nation. As Kolisi has now become.
Francois is an inspirational figure but Kolisi will inspire even more young African boys and girls.
When the dust settles and Kolisi brings the gold trophy into cities and townships, I hope it reignites the healing effect that seemed to occur after 1995.
I know it is not that simplistic – I know real change is hard, it is slow and sometimes it may feel like it is not happening – but Kolisi, the team’s first black captain at Test level, lifting the World Cup provides visual proof that South Africa is growing.
As Rassie Erasmus said: “Rugby shouldn’t be something that creates pressure, rugby should create hope.”
Sport is inclusive by nature but not always in practice. The history of apartheid proves that one of the many challenges in South Africa has been the balance between politics and sport. Erasmus has won that battle by capturing the hearts and minds of people off the field and keeping all the stakeholders aligned to the big picture: winning the World Cup.
What an astonishing achievement. He has done all this with a constant smile on his face and the same “lucky” white shirt. His next task, as Director of Rugby away from the bright lights of Test matches, will be challenging in the extreme.
Erasmus will look to grow the playing base and the skillset of players, so the next coach can build a philosophy with more layers than the single-minded approach that delivered the World Cup (Presumably, Jacques Nienaber will be in line for the head coaching position).
This will be essential because England and New Zealand will definitely evolve.
Sitting in the Eir Sport studio these past six weeks, I heard plenty from Erasmus pre- and postmatch. It brought me back to his single season in Munster. I’m guilty of my own bias and a national “the world revolves around Ireland” bias as well. I was very harsh on Rassie following his exit from Limerick. How could he do this to Munster in their time of need? Irish rugby needed him as well, and he deserted them at their most vulnerable moment. This view became entrenched. It was held by me and others on this small island. It was our perspective.
It has always been a bugbear of mine that somebody says one thing and does another. Erasmus was clear after the 2017 Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Saracens: I am staying.
That he departed a few weeks later became an easy stick to beat him with but I never stalled to look at it from his perspective.
Like, why did he leave South Africa and his job with SA Rugby in the first place? And what had happened in the meantime?
Clearly, they came to their senses. That allowed him to negotiate from a position of strength. He demanded enough power to deliver the Holy Grail.
But what do we, as Irish people living in Dublin, know about South African society?
We form opinions from reading and watching the turmoil inside a country torn apart on a daily basis by horrific crime and seemingly unsolvable cultural rifts.
The core values of set-piece dominance were the bedrock of South Africa's success. We are now acutely aware that the modern game rewards size
Erasmus instantly changed the perception of the Springbok brand, but he did it for the right reasons. Kolisi wasn’t named captain because he was black and could get in the team. Kolisi was named captain because he was the natural leader (and he could get in the team).
I know a few South Africans and every one of them oozes patriotism.
There is a real sense from those involved in sport that they have a responsibility which transcends the athlete.
How could Rassie not answer the call? I’m sure there were moments when he agonised over the decision. “No, I committed to Munster and they have embraced me as one of their own” (don’t think that will ever change) all the while an internal voice must have been reminding him of a sense of duty. It is the ultimate job for a former Springbok.
Coaching South Africa at a World Cup was an opportunity he missed out on in 2007 (when Eddie Jones filled his boots as an assistant coach to stunning effect).
We cannot fully understand the importance of this win to South Africans. Even in a globalised world we do not know anything of the reality of their daily life. We cannot properly grasp the hardships – both poverty and security – people must deal with, and how close this group of players are to all these issues.
This is a loose comparison but Declan Kidney, speaking just before we completed the Grand Slam in 2009, touched a similar nerve to what Erasmus said to inspire his players.
“Everyday people are hurting at home,” said Deccie. “You have the chance to give them something to smile about and something positive to talk about. Don’t underestimate the power of positivity.”
Erasmus preached the same sermon following defeat to New Zealand in the opening Pool match.
When I retired I had a chat – one of many – with Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson where he explained how professional rugby players were insulated from the recession. Leinster’s success story gave people something enjoyable to distract them. It was a few crumbs of comfort away from the realities of repossessed homes and businesses going down the tubes. We knew what was happening but rugby players were still making good money. Leinster playing well throughout the 2008/09 season gave the rugby fan a place to bury their head in the sand for a few hours every weekend.
This idea viewed through the prism of South African society goes to another level when it comes to the Springboks conquering Japan 2019.
We can only imagine the mental power source they plugged into to produce that performance against England.
I agree with Ronan O’Gara’s comments on the simplicity of their approach to winning the World Cup. The core values of set-piece dominance were the bedrock of their success. We are now acutely aware that the modern game rewards size. Having big men who could dominate the collisions even against Billy Vunipola was how England were broken. Literally, broken.
New Zealand were the only team that could beat them as their unstructured play is superior to any team in the world.
England played their best game in the semi-final and that is the luck of the draw. They had to peak to overcome the All Blacks and hope that South Africa remained the same as the performance that saw off Wales.
Of course, we now know, the Boks were building all the time.
The challenge for the next generation of coaches is how to navigate these gargantuan opponents – because they are not going to get smaller – and how to do it consistently.
Watch how Leinster seek to evolve under Stuart Lancaster in 2020, and Ireland under Mike Catt, because collision-heavy tactics cannot be how we operate anymore.
Another very Irish trait comes to light as I think back over Joe Schmidt’s time at the helm. When Ireland were winning matches, championships and Grand Slams, you could still hear amplified voices being critical about how the team was playing. It wasn’t expansive enough. There wasn’t enough tries. They kick far too much.
Some people couldn’t be happy with just winning. South Africa are happy with just winning.
In typical Irish fashion, pressure was created – internally and externally – that became unbearable. I’d like to say it will be different next time but we will find flaws to fit the criticism.
Should the national rugby team create hope or pressure?
I’ll lean towards hope every time.