Springboks invite Mandela in effort to revisit '95 vibe
There are some 5,421 miles between Johannesburg and Paris, and 12 years have passed since Francois Pienaar got his mitts on the World Cup on home soil, but the Springboks are doing their level best, it would seem, to recreate the spirit of Ellis Park 1995 in the Stade de France this Saturday night.
Having watched his team breeze into the 2007 final with a 37-13 victory in Sunday's semi-final, Jake White, South Africa's head coach, said yesterday that attempts were being made to have Nelson Mandela in Paris when the Boks take on England for the right to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
It was Mandela, of course, who presented the trophy to Pienaar after South Africa's 15-12 extra-time victory against the All Blacks in 1995 – a moment that transcended the sporting world, symbolising the unification of a country whose president had spent 28 years in jail for his part in the fight against apartheid. White confirmed that Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, would be in the Stade de France on Saturday but added that an invitation had been extended to his predecessor.
"When Madiba [as Mandela is referred to in his homeland] was staying in Paris recently for his children's foundation we visited and gave him a No 2 jersey," White said. "We told him he was welcome to join us in the week of the final. The most important thing is what his health is like. Long trips are not too good for him, so hopefully he's up for it. If he's strong enough I'm sure he'll be here."
Mandela's presence would be a psychological boost for South Africa, all the more so if he turned up wearing that No 2 jersey – a replica of the shirt worn by the current Springbok captain, John Smit. Back in 1995 the president arrived for the final wearing a South African No 6 jersey given to him by Pienaar.
Not that White's men would appear to be in need of a morale-boosting lift. "Cup glory beckons," was the banner headline yesterday in the Johannesburg daily newspaper, The Star. And the mood back home was reflected by Vusi Malinga, South Africa's world bantamweight boxing champion. "The final is a walkover," he proclaimed.
Amid such confident talk, White was at pains yesterday to counter the suggestion that his team, having floored England to the tune of 36-0 in the pool stages a month ago, would be the firmest favourites for a World Cup final since... well, since Jonah Lomu and the All Blacks turned up for that 1995 decider – unbeknown to the world, suffering from the effects of food poisoning.
"We can't be complacent," White said. "England have got guys who won the Cup in 2003. They've been there and done the World Cup away from home, so whatever happened in the pool game is irrelevant. It's not a case of manufacturing underdog status. No one gave us a chance before we left." They do now, though.