Boks back for seconds

There have been many times during the past 12 years when the idea of South Africa ever winning the World Cup again seemed utterly ludicrous.

Remember when André Markgraaff dropped Francois Pienaar and replaced him in the Springbok squad with Theo Oost­huizen? That was ludicrous.

Remember when Nick Mallett dropped Gary Teichmann and took a crippled Bobby Skinstad to the 1999 World Cup in his place. Sheer folly.

Remember when the South African Rugby Football Union (Sarfu) kicked out Mallett for having the temerity to suggest that ticket prices for the Tri-Nations were a little on the steep side. Preposterous.

Remember when Rudolf Straeuli decided to prepare to play England at the 2003 World Cup by throwing his squad naked into a pit? Buffoonery. And do you remember when South Africa went to Brisbane to play Australia and lost 49-0?

That was just 15 months ago, but right now it seems as if it was played in another lifetime. South Africa are one match away from winning the World Cup again. Someone pass the smelling salts.

History may be bunk, but whatever happens on Saturday it can’t hope to rival 1995. Remember when the Sowetan hit the streets on the day before the final with the headline “All blacks want South Africa to win the World Cup”? And remember the spontaneous cheering that began when Nelson Mandela first appeared on the Ellis Park pitch wearing a Springbok jersey with the number six on the back?

Edward Griffiths in his book, One Team, One Country, relates the story of Harry Becker, a contractor from Johannesburg. “I went to Ellis Park,” said Becker, “and parked where the attendant told me he would look after the car. I asked him who would win. He said Amabhokobhoko would win because ‘Madiba is going to be inside and he has very strong medicine. He will shake everybody’s hand and when he touches the All Blacks they will get sick.’ And didn’t they just?”

Madiba’s presence at the event has taken on such a talismanic status that John Smit’s Boks tried everything they knew to get him to Stade de France for this week’s final. It has entered the collective consciousness and those of us who were there are outnumbered a hundredfold by those who think they were there.

A good proportion of the deluded can probably point to the spot on Kevin James’s famous photograph where they think they sat. You know the photo: a panoramic of Ellis Park with a tiny green dot turning his back as the ball he has kicked sails between the uprights. The tiny green dot is Joel Stransky and he says: “If I had a rand for every one of those pictures I’ve signed, I could retire”.

James was refused accreditation for the final and had to buy a ticket. He smuggled a German wide-angle camera in. It was such high resolution that there were only four pictures per filmstrip. He took 16 in all and prefers the one of the final whistle, but acknowledges that he is in the minority. It just so happened that he was in the perfect seat. Had he been at ground level he would have been too close.

Look along the row of photographers in the foreground of James’s picture and you’ll see one with both arms raised and fists clenched. You’d be forgiven for thinking his emotions got the better of him at the key moment. But he had already got his shot, the close-up of Stransky striking the ball that gets reprinted almost as often as James’s and had double cause for celebration.

Across the world in New Zealand there was a very different mood. John Leslie was one of the Kilted Kiwis who went to play international rugby for Scotland in the 1990s. In 1995 he was still living in Dunedin and he remembers walking home from the rugby club in the small hours of Sunday morning.

“There was an eerie quiet and no one on the streets, but at the top of a hill I saw a faint glow. As I got closer I could see smoke and when I got to the top of the hill I realised what it was. Someone had set fire to his TV set and thrown it into the road.”

In the unlikely event that the Springboks lose on Saturday it would be as well to remember that story. It is, after all, only a game, and the difference between now and 1995 is that the result won’t be bandied around as an example of nation-building. A few deserving players will become financially secure for life and for a few months the politicians will leave the game alone.

By the time the next international season rolls around it will be business as usual, with quotas to the fore and the usual conundrum of finding a way to beat the All Blacks consistently in the years between World Cups. Until then celebrate the achievement and consider this: sometimes a once in a lifetime occurrence happens twice.

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