25 years ago last week, we saw a nation heal its racial wounds

AP fileSouth Africa’s scrumhalf Joost van der Westhuizen lets fly a pass during the World Cup final against New Zealand at Ellis Park in Johannesburg June 24, 1995. 

With competition still largely absent from our televisions and our local venues, we marked the 25th anniversary Wednesday of the greatest day in sports since two Cro-Magnons stood at the mouth of a cave and decided to see who could be first to drag his knuckles down to the far tree.

I’m talking, of course, about the Rugby World Cup final, June 24, 1995, at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

No?

Rugby is the world’s best sport, but I might be biased about that. By way of full disclosure, I’m a former rugby player.

The five years I played for the Pittsburgh Harlequins Rugby Football Club — including the season I mostly missed while recovering from a pretty gruesome leg injury — amounted to almost exactly one-11th of my life. It was almost exactly the middle one-11th of my life — I started playing at the age 25 and it’s been 25 years since I quit the game. 

It was also the pivotal one-11th of my life. Before I started playing rugby, I had failed at just about everything I tried. Since then, I’ve been mostly successful.

And I don’t think that was a coincidence. I wasn’t a great, or arguably even good, player, but I did OK because my only outstanding athletic attribute — a high pain tolerance — is an asset in rugby.

For me, rugby was something of a purification ritual. Facing, and overcoming, the sport’s challenges, made me a better, more confident, more creative person and prepared me for the second half of my life, at least so far.

It’s also given me a rich bank of jokes about football, or soccer as it’s known in the United States and Australia:

Q: What’s the difference between soccer and rugby? A: Soccer is 22 men spending 90 minutes pretending they’re hurt. Rugby is 30 men spending 80 minutes pretending they’re not hurt.

And ...

After multiple books and a major motion picture, there are still people who believe that the Uruguayan rugby players who survived 10 weeks in the Andes 10,000 feet above sea level after a plane crash, with little more than the flesh of their dead friends for sustenance, were soccer players. That’s just ridiculous. A planeload of soccer players would have flopped down in the snow and died waiting for a referee to come along and call a foul against the mountain.

Relax, footy aficionados. I kid because I’m jealous.

Your sport is, by a wide margin, the world’s most popular athletic activity.

Soccer was, and remains, more popular in South Africa — two separate nations divided on racial lines until the days leading up to June 24, 1995 — because the nation’s Black majority preferred it to rugby, the white minority’s sport.

In 1980, about 16 percent of South Africans were white. Most of the remaining five-sixths were Black, but wealth and political power were concentrated in that white one-sixth. 

Black South Africans were prohibited from voting until 1994, an election that installed Nelson Mandela as president.

But with the presidency, Mandela faced a problem, reuniting a fragmented nation where Black citizens held political authority and whites had economic and much of the military power. The 1995 Rugby World Cup gave him a solution.

To Black South Africans, the Springboks — South Africa’s national rugby team — were a symbol of the system that had oppressed them for generations.

So it was a thunderous statement of unity when Mandela turned up for the final match pitting South Africa against heavily favored New Zealand wearing a replica Springboks’ jersey. 

In the first-ever international rugby match to go overtime, South Africa upset New Zealand, 15-12. Afterward, Mandela presented the William Webb Ellis Trophy to South Africa team captain Francois Pienaar. 

In the weeks leading up to that trophy pass, Mandela and Pienaar had forged a friendship and cooperated to use the Rugby World Cup and the Springboks as a uniting force for their nation. That story has been well-told in the book “Playing the Enemy,” by journalist John Carlin, and the 2009 movie “Invictus,” where Morgan Freeman portrayed Mandela and Matt Damon played Pienaar.

After the match, an interviewer asked Pienaar what it was like to have had 63,000 — the approximate capacity of Ellis Park — behind them. The Springboks’ captain corrected the TV presenter.

“We didn’t have 63,000 people behind us. We had 43 million people behind us,” he said, citing the nation’s population, Black and white, at the time.

Those in the stands and the millions around the world, including me, who watched on television, had hoped for a classic rugby match.

We got that. 

But we got something more. Twenty-five years ago last week, we got to watch a nation heal its wounds.

Eric Poole is The Herald’s assistant editor for news. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @HeraldEricPoole. Email him at epoole@sharonherald.com