Barely two months after he’d kicked South Africa to victory in the final of Rugby World Cup 1995, Joel Stransky returned to Ellis Park in a Springbok jersey – but this time as a professional player.
Stransky was one of 10 players to retain their place in the starting line-up for the first match as reigning world champions and the first to be played since the International Rugby Board (IRB, now World Rugby) declared the game had gone open.
Coming exactly a week after that momentous decision was made public, the spotlight of the world was on Johannesburg to see what the brave new world of professionalism looked like.
For Stransky, professionalism meant very little – he already felt professional in his attitude and application to be the best version of himself – other than picking up a paycheque.
“We weren’t professional (pre-26 August) but we behaved like professional rugby players in that whatever we did as jobs during the day, our Union negotiated that we could still go training in the morning and the evening, whatever it was, and the time was flexible,” Stransky said. “So your actual behaviour as a rugby player didn’t change that much if anything at all in that space (between the Rugby World Cup final and 26 August).
“We might not have been paid to play rugby but we still trained and prepared and behaved in a manner which was professional.”
That professionalism lent itself to treating the opposition with due respect. Wales may not have had the best of Rugby World Cups, but in Gareth Thomas, they had unearthed a winger who could complement Ieuan Evans on the other flank.
“If you were to ask me about the World Cup final, I don’t remember much about it, just little moments, and it’s the same with that Wales game," said Stransky.
“I am not someone who lives in the past, I am someone who lives today and thinks of tomorrow.
“But I remember us in the preparation looking at Wales and thinking, that’s quite a good side, they should achieve more than they actually do and there’s a lot of good players in there.
“We went into the game with a genuine fear of one or two players.”
In truth, the match was more notable for two unsavoury incidents which resulted in South Africa’s Cobus Wiese and Garin Jenkins picking up 30-day bans, and in the Wales hooker’s case a red card towards the end of the match, than for the quality of the action on display.
The Springboks were right to be wary of Wales as within three minutes of the match getting underway, they found themselves trailing to Mark Bennett’s close-range try.
South Africa were ultimately too strong for Alec Evans’ side, though, and five tries and 15 points from the boot of Stransky gave them a comfortable 40-11 win.
Stransky also launched the best move of the match with a searing break from inside his own half which culminated in outside centre Japie Mulder scoring in the second half.
“I made the break and, as I went to pass it, I juggled it, and it nearly slipped out of my hands. I remember James Small giving me the little finger (wag) afterwards and a wry smile,” the playmaker recalled.
“It was a beautiful day, perfect conditions for running rugby, and we wanted to move the ball around a bit.
“I wouldn’t say we wanted to put on a show because I don’t think we were a team that was good at putting on a show, we weren’t a running team, but we wanted to go out and play the game that day.”
No looking back
Stransky says his forward-thinking philosophy on life helped to prevent him suffering from a post-Rugby World Cup hangover.
“I think if you dwell in the past, you get stuck in the past. I think we had a couple of players in that team who did that and battled to move on and forward in their lives.
“For me, that Wales game was another opportunity to play test rugby, another test against a top-tier nation, and nothing to do with the past.
“It was all about what was happening on the day and in the future.”
Stransky, the man who kicked the Springboks into rugby folklore, went on to amass 22 caps and 240 points for his country before enjoying a stint overseas at English club giants Leicester Tigers.
A successful entrepreneur, pre and post-professionalism, Stransky is now a director of an Information Technology and Services group.