Nelson Mandela was behind the greatest game of rugby ever played
This particular episode of Mandela’s life was made famous by the movie Invictus, starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman, and so it is probably not altogether fair to add it to this list. However, it is one of the most poignant chapters of Mandela’s contribution to South Africa, and would be worth remembering.
South Africa, it hardly needs to be said, is a sports-loving country, and across the race divide, rugby attracts a fanatical following. It was a source of great sadness and frustration to the South African public that the republic was banned from international sport for most of the 1970s and 1980s, and upon independence, a source of great joy that the nation was welcomed back into the world sporting fraternity. The 1995 Rugby World Cup was staged in South Africa in celebration of that, although there was no expectation that South Africa would win this first major international competition of the post-apartheid era.
Mandela, however, saw it as a means of uniting the nation after the bruising handover of power, and he put all of his considerable moral weight behind building a viable South African team.
Despite the, a South African victory remained improbable, but against the odds, the Springboks, crept up the rankings, and on 24 June, they entered Ellis Park in Johannesburg to take on the might All Blacks in a momentous final.
The game was a nail-biter, and victory was clinched at the last minute by a drop goal fired by South African fly-half Joel Stransky. Written into the iconography of the South African Rainbow Nation are the images of Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springbok jersey, congratulating South African Captain François Pienaar as he held the cup aloft. This single action established Mandela’s place deep in the affections for white South Africa, something that many predicted could never happen.
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