RWC 1995 success honed in Transvaal
It is one of the most famous images in the history of sports. Francois Pienaar, the Springbok captain, accepting the Webb Ellis Cup from Nelson Mandela at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
South Africa hadn’t been expected to do the business in their first tournament since returning from isolation, but they hit the ground running and found a winning formula quickly.
At the heart of their efforts was the relationship between Pienaar and coach Kitch Christie, one forged at domestic level with Transvaal, now the Golden Lions.
Writing in his autobiography Rainbow Warrior, Pienaar described the bond between the pair as one that transcended coach and captain.
“He was the type of strong, disciplined, brave man that I most admired,” he wrote. “Since 1993 we had grown together. Time and again I felt the benefit of his support and advice. I knew he supported me, I knew he cared for me. He never let me down. This had been the character of our relationship. I would listen to his advice, I would implement his game plan.”
Educated in Scotland – where he picked up his nickname, after Rangers’ South African striker Don Kitchenbrand – Christie began his coaching journey with the Pretoria Harlequins, later taking the reins with Transvaal after his native Northern Transvaal, the modern Blue Bulls, overlooked his services.
Extremely rare teams
The Currie Cup may have been shunted aside in recent years due to the growth of Super Rugby, but it retains a special place in the heart of South African rugby fans. That feeling was even stronger when Christie took the reins at Transvaal in 1993, a side who had last won the title 21 years earlier.
One of the oldest competitions in world rugby, the Currie Cup began with the British tour of South Africa in 1891. They brought with them a trophy – donated by Sir Donald Currie, owner of the shipping company that transported them – to be awarded to the toughest opponents they faced. The first winners were Griqualand West, followed by Western Province in the first year of the tournament proper.
Transvaal won their first title in 1922, but by the late 1980s were a team in turmoil. Huge debts – in part related to the re-development of Ellis Park – had driven them to the brink of extinction. Louis Luyt was charged with rescuing them financially, while Christie came to be their saviour in a sporting sense.
At his disposal he had the raw materials to craft a winning side and in Pienaar, a willing deputy. They lost only twice in 1993, finishing second on the Currie Cup log to Natal Sharks, who they then beat 21-15 in the final thanks to Springbok hooker Uli Schmidt’s try. More was to come, a Super 10 title against Auckland and a defence of their Currie Cup title a year later both followed.
“I had the good fortune to coach two world-class teams: the World Cup-winning Springboks and the Transvaal side of 1993-94,” Christie later said. “Teams such as these are extremely rare. They are tough to find and even tougher to build. But they exist. They can be built and they can be led. Anyone who has seen one in action will know it.”
In 1994, after a series defeat to the All Blacks, Springbok coach Ian McIntosh was shown the door. Luyt, by now president of the South African Rugby Football Union, picked up the phone to Christie, setting the wheels in motion for one of the most successful alliances in the history of international rugby.
With his Transvaal players liberally scattered throughout his squad, Christie continued his remarkable success. He took charge of 14 Tests, and won all of them to equal the then all-time record set by New Zealand’s Fred ‘The Needle’ Allen.
His first major victory came in the opening game of Rugby World Cup 1995 – against reigning champions Australia – and the rest, as they say, is history. His tactics in the final against New Zealand, and the rampaging Jonah Lomu, were pitch-perfect and provided the backbone to that legendary occasion.
Unfortunately for the sport, Christie was to remain South Africa coach for only a year after, as his health deteriorated. He had battled leukemia since 1979 and sadly succumbed in 1998 after brief spells with Northern Transvaal and the Falcons.
Rugby lost one of its finest coaches, South Africa lost one of its favourite sons, but his legacy remains. Inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame in 2011, Christie showed that club success can be translated into international triumph. The class of Rugby World Cup 2015 will doubtless contain coaches who have taken his legacy to heart.