Sean Fitzpatrick reflects on Nelson Mandela, Rugby World Cup 1995 and 2023

By Sean Fitzpatrick
A photograph from 1995 reminded me of a pivotal moment for rugby and South Africa and why – after 28 years – a rematch between South Africa and New Zealand is exactly what this World Cup needs. 
There is a picture I’m looking at right now. Me and Nelson Mandela, shaking hands before the 1995 World Cup final. I was the captain of the All Blacks, about to take on South Africa. And by that time, that’s what it felt like – not the Springboks, a rugby team, but the entire country. 
That photograph means so much more to me today than it did at the time. On June 24, 1995, I didn’t think about it too much. Now, I think about how Mandela saw the potential that sport had to achieve a greater goal, and how that part of his incredible legacy is just as relevant today as it was then. 
I got a call this week from the other captain from that day, Francois Pienaar. ‘How are you Fitzy, you old biscuit?’ He’s in Paris too, and we’re going to catch up before the final. We’ll talk about the game of course – the two three-time winners of this tournament who came in with very different expectations and have made it through a classic knockout phase. We’ll talk about Mandela, the first patron of Laureus, who said that ‘sport has the power to change the world’.
Sport Has The Power To Change The World
But we’ll also talk about the last time these two rugby super-powers met in a World Cup final, 28 years ago.
One week before the final, we had played our semi-final against England in Newlands, Cape Town, and it had felt like a home game for us. By then, that’s what we had come to expect. South Africa loved the All Blacks.
But all that changed quickly, and it was down to Mandela. He saw the potential that sport had to unite a country that had been divided for so long and he did so behind a simple message: 'One Team, One Country.’ Now there was also ‘One Opponent’. And South Africa no longer loved the All Blacks.
It became incredibly difficult for us and looking back, I think we got it wrong. We sensed that this great cultural moment was happening, and we tried to absorb it, to embrace it and be part of it. We had lunch with the South Africans. In the end, it was all a bit too much for us.
We were up against more than a team. What a great man Nelson Mandela was, and what great foresight he had to see what sport could do.
And the power he saw in sport – the power to unite and the power to change – is there today, and we need it more than ever. It remains at the beating heart of Laureus Sport for Good, which supports sports programmes all over the world that reached more than 300,000 children and young people last year alone.
The rugby world will unite as a tournament that gave us a series of unmissable knockout games finishes with a rematch of that 1995 final.
What’s changed since the last time they met on this stage are the stakes. In 1995, All Blacks teams were judged on series wins against South Africa and the British and Irish Lions. Today, international teams are judged on performance at the World Cup. 
South Africa started this tournament as the defending champions and they have proved that they still know how to win – nowhere more than in their thriller of a semi-final against England. 
By comparison, New Zealand’s semi-final lacked drama – but their tournament has been a story of progress and of depth. For the All Blacks, the World Cup is usually the end of a three or four-year cycle. This time, they put a team together over 12 months.
Even at the start of the tournament, I thought we were heading to something like a semi-final with Ireland, play well but lose. Instead, New Zealand has been the team flying under the radar, building momentum. And now that’s a group who absolutely want to win and have a superb collective focus. 
The nature of the semi-final meant they could rest a lot of players after 60 minutes and Ian Foster knows now that he has 27 or 28 players capable of starting a World Cup final – and they’re all fit.
At the core of the group, the veterans for whom this will be a final Test have held it all together. Brodie Retallick was sensational in the quarter-final against Ireland and Sam Whitelock has been the same. To come off the bench with 150 Test matches – it’s amazing for the All Blacks to have that depth. To have players such as Dane Coles or Beauden Barratt there has made a big difference.
And I’m particularly pleased for Sam Cane. He was under the cosh, people were doubting if he was the right man to lead the All Blacks, but Foster showed huge faith in him and when he got fit and got a run of games together, he delivered – and in that big quarter-final against Ireland, he was the outstanding player. 
Where 28 years ago it was Francois and I as opposing captains, this time it’ll be Sam and Siya Kolisi. Both captains have world-class players behind them. Both carry the hopes of a great rugby nation. Both have the same goal. 
Only one of them will lift the Webb Ellis Cup. 

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