'Invictus' widens game's appeal
If South Africa make it to the cup final tomorrow - their captain, Kyle Brown, will not have to look far for motivation. One word, repeated three times will do the trick. 'Focus, focus, focus.'
With that impassioned cry the course of South Africa's history was changed in 1995 and president Nelson Mandela and Springbok captain Francois Pienaar became heroes of the 'Rainbow Nation' and have since been immortalised in the movie Invictus.
Rugby has the power to do many things including effect social change, as South Africa experienced on that momentous day in Johannesburg 15 years ago when the Springboks beat the All Blacks in the World Cup and united a nation, thanks to mastermind Mandela.
Another former Bok captain Bobby Skinstad, who is back in Hong Kong for the Sevens, has some ambivalence about the dramatic representation of the World Cup, but believed Invictus has taken the sport to a wider audience.
'I think it's a fairly accurate, if not a slightly romanticised view of the power of sport,' says Skinstad, the veteran of 42 tests. 'The story of South Africa winning that day against the virtually undefeated All Blacks against all odds almost does have an element of Hollywood unbelievability about it. It is incredible though that we won.
'The movie has allowed that time in our history to strike a chord with a wider audience. It is somewhat bizarre seeing this story Africans lived through released at the same time as Avatar. Both have an incredible plot, story and theme though. I hope the movie will help create awareness that Africa is not one great amorphous mass. It's many countries with many stories.'
Invictus may have missed a nomination for best movie at this month's Oscars, but Morgan Freeman, as Mandela, and Matt Damon, as Pienaar, won nominations for best actor and supporting actor respectively.
Using the vehicle of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the collective minds of Mandela and Pienaar combined sport and politics in a way never witnessed before, paving the way for what Pienaar refers to as 'the modern South Africa'.
Pienaar and Mandela were an unlikely union. When Mandela became president in 1994 after being released from 27 years in exile in 1990, he took power in a nation dominated by racial and economic division. He set his immediate challenge of 'balancing black aspirations and white fears'.
The young Afrikaner, Pienaar, was captain of the Springboks. Whenever South Africa played, non-whites in the stadium cheered against their home team. Rugby and the Boks were the ultimate symbols of white supremacy. Mandela was astute enough to know that to change the country he had to unite it over the game that divided them. In the movie, Damon tells his team, 'Focus, focus, focus', as a tidal wave of patriotism sweeps over the ground and all eyes are on Mandela, wearing a Springbok shirt bearing the inspired choice of Pienaar's number six.
Against the odds Pienaar kept with his innate drive, and found in Mandela a mentor, a motivator and someone of equal discipline. 'To succeed in professional rugby, you have to be driven. I have known far more talented players than me,' Pienaar said. ' To go places, you have to sacrifice quite a bit, and that takes discipline. There is no X gene of success, only hard work.'
Skinstad says the impact of that day can still be felt in South Africa.
'I have many great memories. We slept outside the ticket office and queued for hours. We could only get standing-room tickets. I didn't care; I just wanted to be there. At the time I was 19, playing rugby at Stellenbosch University. It was a hugely emotional experience.
'That Mandela showed that sport can be used as a unifying tool was an incredible stroke of genius. He understood that sport could push towards a free-minded South Africa. That win contributed to the nation's roaring success and national pride.'
Although the impact of the win was enormous, Skinstad says it took some time for changes to be implemented on a day-to-day level. 'Change in many respects is a gradual process. As a commentator, I watch all the under-15 and under-21 matches. Rugby in South Africa now has a much bigger percentage of black players as a direct result of the country's openness to change.
'I believe 99 per cent of change is starting and having the resolve to keep going, and in South Africa I think we're on track. Our political and social change is a work in progress. The phrase 'rainbow nation' is not used so much any more, as I think we're just living that every day.'
Skinstad has not forgotten Pienaar's contribution to this new South Africa. 'His stature has grown. He was already a legend in his own lifetime before the runaway success of Invictus. He does a lot of fund-raising for charities, for sponsorship and rugby development. He's really active in sport and equality development. He has incredible drive and a vast hunger of mind and spirit. We are privileged to have had him as captain that day and a continuous driving force in our nation. Pienaar is an inspiration. He awakened South Africa to the idealism of how much we could effect change as part of a positive society.'
Both Pienaar and Mandela were masters of synergy and timing, and Skinstad believes the timing of the movie was also to rugby's advantage. 'The fact it was released in America less than two months after the announcement of rugby sevens as an Olympic sport in Rio in 2016 will boost rugby's popularity.' Skinstad is in no doubt the Hong Kong Sevens has played a leading role in the game being reinstated as an Olympic sport. 'The Hong Kong Sevens is the pinnacle of sevens rugby and will be for a long time to come. Not only is the sevens here a fantastic contributor to what Hong Kong is today, the calibre of the tournament and the way the game is played here had a huge impact in the IOC's choice to reinstate it.
'I have been to the Hong Kong Sevens many times and I have seen it evolve from a fun weekend of rugby to what it is today.'