On this day in 1995: Mandela, Williams and Pienaar help unite South Africa

Twenty-five years on from the historic Rugby World Cup 1995 final, Francois Pienaar, Bryan Habana and Siya Kolisi reflect on the inspirational effect of South Africa's RWC victories on their generations.

South Africa’s players were getting ready for the Rugby World Cup 1995 final when there was a knock on their changing room door.

As the door swung open, in walked the country’s president, Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springbok jersey with captain Francois Pienaar’s number six on the back. 

“It was just insane seeing Mr Mandela walking into our changing room before the final wearing a Springbok on his heart,” Pienaar told World Rugby recently.

“I had to go and collect myself and then make sure that we calmed the guys down. I mean they were prepared to run through walls.”

Mandela, who had been elected a year previously, might have been wearing the captain’s jersey but he had a special message for winger Chester Williams, the only player of colour in the team on 24 June, 1995.

“I’m proud of you,” Mandela told Williams. “Go make the rest of South Africa proud too.”

Unifying a nation

Williams had been the face of RWC 1995, his beaming smile projected from billboards around the host country. However, an injury picked up in a warm-up match against Samoa had kept him out of the Springboks’ initial squad.

World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Francois Pienaar on South Africa's RWC successes
Former South Africa captain Francois Pienaar recounts his memories of the Springboks' Rugby World Cup 1995 triumph and discusses the team's victory in Japan 24 years on.

The winger was a reluctant poster boy, but he was a very good rugby player and following the suspension of Pieter Hendricks, he got his chance to showcase that on the biggest stage.

On his Rugby World Cup debut, the quarter-final against Samoa, Williams became the first South African to score four tries in a match.

He subsequently retained his place for the semi-final win over France and 15-12 extra-time defeat of New Zealand in the final.

“It was the first World Cup in which South Africa was involved. We were the host country, we won and it unified the nation,” Williams, who passed away last September, recalled in 2013.

“Everyone was so happy. White, black, everyone. That day we all became legends and after the match things were so much better in the country.”

The picture of Mandela handing Pienaar the Webb Ellis Cup, decked out in a replica Springbok jersey, would become iconic.

“It is the most insane moment that I think any sportsman can have, to win a World Championship, win a World Cup,” Pienaar, whose final jersey is now on display at the World Rugby Hall of Fame, said. 

“It is very, very special, and to have done it in South Africa, to have done it with Mr Mandela standing right next to me, also wearing a number six jersey, just ultra-special to me.”

Giving back to the country

Watching on from the Ellis Park stands, alongside his father, was a 12-year-old Bryan Habana.

Habana, who was named after Manchester United and England captain Bryan Robson, had dreamed of becoming a football player until Rugby World Cup arrived in South Africa.

But having watched the Springboks’ run to the title, including the opening win against Australia and all three knockout matches, he had a change of heart.

“It was the first time I watched rugby ... I didn’t even know the rules,” Habana said ahead of the RWC 2007 final.

“But it was a great experience. I remember we were all very proud of being South Africans.

“Being part of that total euphoria was really inspirational for me. It made me want to take up the game and give the country something back.”

It’s fair to say that across a professional career in which he played 124 tests for his country and scored 67 tries, Habana did just that.

His crowning glory came in 2007. Habana emulated Williams in South Africa’s opening match, his four tries helping the Springboks to a 59-7 defeat of Samoa.

Habana would cross the whitewash eight times in total, including twice in the semi-final win over Argentina, to set up a final meeting with England. 

‘A lot of us just need an opportunity’

He would line up in the same number 11 jersey Williams had 12 years earlier as England were beaten 15-6. Watching on from a Port Elizabeth township was a young Siya Kolisi.

“I was actually watching it in the tavern because I didn’t have a TV at home,” Kolisi said following South Africa’s RWC 2019 semi-final win over Wales.

“I remember what it did for us in 2007, I’ve never seen people come together like that over sport.”

Kolisi was 16 when he watched Habana and his team-mates lift the Webb Ellis Cup in Paris. Less than six years later, he would make his Springbok debut alongside the winger.

Fast forward to 2 November, 2019, and Kolisi, South Africa’s first black captain, is preparing to lead his country into the RWC 2019 final on the occasion of his 50th cap. He is wearing the same number six shirt made famous by Mandela and Pienaar.

In the stands, South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is decked out in a replica of Kolisi’s jersey.

“President Ramaphosa arrived at the stadium and when he saw me, his first words were, ‘now I know we are going to win’,” Pienaar said. 

“I looked at him and said ‘President, did you bring a number six jersey?’ He said I did, and I said, ‘now I think we are going to win’.” 

The confidence of Pienaar and his president proved well placed as Kolisi led a team featuring seven players of colour to a 32-12 victory over England before hoisting the Webb Ellis Cup high into the Yokohama night sky.

"We had one goal and we have achieved it," Kolisi, whose number six jersey will soon join Pienaar's at the World Rugby Hall of Fame, said after the final.

"A lot of us in South Africa just need an opportunity and there are so many untold stories."

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