South Africa’s rugby players hang around their hotel bar in Bercy, an ugly corner of Paris. Around them are office blocks. There are no security men to keep out the hordes of fans, because there are no hordes.
Two days before the Springboks face England in the World Cup final, all is quiet. On the bar’s television screen Bryan Habana floats across the sky scoring a try, and beside the TV set, not even watching it, the real Habana sits laughing at some joke. You can imagine these Boks winning Saturday night’s final and then hitch-hiking back to the hotel, as Francois Pienaar and Joel Stransky did after winning for South Africa in 1995.
Finally Stransky appears in the bar in shorts. He and some buddies have been playing something called “rugby golf”, and ended up fishing a ball out of the water. Stransky, 40, is in Paris as one of Visa’s “rugby legends”. Fresh as he still looks, he’s a ghost. Not only were his Boks very unlike today’s version, but today’s South Africa is another country from the one Stransky briefly united with his winning drop-goal 12 years ago.
Let’s relive that first: South Africa and New Zealand are tied in extra time in Johannesburg. The ball is thrown to the little fly-half, and he kicks, watches the ball through the posts, turns without smiling, scampers
off – and then, a second later, glances back anxiously, as if to make sure the ball went over.
“I hit it, and I wish I could have kicked every kick in my career as well as that,” Stransky muses. “I’d have been a very great drop-kicker. I looked up, I saw where it was going, how it was spinning, and, ‘Well, that can’t miss’. And I turned and – I don’t know why I had that little look. It was maybe, deep inside me, the realisation of the significance. It wasn’t to make sure it had gone over. It was more a glance back, to savour something.”
Couldn’t he smile? “Well, it was still seven minutes to go. We were an incredibly focused team. Ja, if that had been an eight-point difference, we might have smiled.” And he laughs, now.
That Boks side had only one black player, yet Nelson Mandela anointed them as the whole nation’s team. That was fair enough: apartheid had just fallen, and rugby hadn’t had time to integrate. But 12 years later South Africa still has only two non-white starters. Isn’t that disappointing?
“It is in a way,” Stransky admits. “You have to say, ‘Has enough been done? Are the results there to show enough has been done?’ Clearly the results aren’t there. But ’95 was the beginning of this growth of the game. Those kids who embraced rugby at seven or eight years old, they’d be 20 now. Would they be in the Springbok team yet? Probably not.”
Stransky himself was a rare non-Afrikaans Springbok. Was he accepted easily? “By the ’90s there was much less of an Afrikaans-English thing already. More prevalent was provincialism. You played for a provincial side, and you could play against another provincial side five times a season. The provincialism resulted in massive rivalry. All of a sudden these guys were forced into one camp to work together. We were, in terms of international rugby, quite inexperienced. South Africa had only been back into the world of rugby since 1992.”
It’s different now. “The Springbok team today is an incredibly well-balanced, experienced team. But both teams were similar in the way we played: forward-dominated, strong kicking game, solid defence. Similar recipe.”
Many South Africans still go teary thinking of Mandela coming out before the final in 1995 wearing Pienaar’s Boks’ jersey. Clint Eastwood is even planning a movie set around the scene. For Stransky, Mandela towers over that match. He says that a lunch he and his wife later had with the great man was “probably the highlight of my life”. Better than winning a World Cup? “Oh, absolutely.”
Mandela, in a video message to today’s Springboks, yesterday spoke of the “nation united” behind the 1995 team. Will the country unite again today? “It can’t be the same,” says Stransky. “In ’95 there was much more buy-in from the whole nation.”
Speaking of fly-halves winning World Cups with drop-goals, what about England’s Jonny Wilkinson? Stransky enthuses: “He’s one of the best ever. You see how confidence oozes back into the English team the minute he’s there, and how accurate he still is in his game, his passing, tackling, kicking out of hand. He’s probably not at his best, and he’s been the form fly-half of the World Cup.”
Lastly, is it irritating when people reduce Stransky’s great career to that one drop-kick? “Ja, it is. It is. I’d like to think I did have a lot more to offer than just a drop – I was actually crap at drop-kicks. In my career I probably kicked 10 drop-goals. But as much as I’d love to be remembered as the complete fly-half and everything, it’s quite nice to have that one defining moment. Life is about defining moments, and to have such a significant defining moment is, ahhh . . . ” He pauses, lost for words. “It’s not bad,” he concludes.