Mark Keohane, writing for IOL Sport, in a series reflecting on the 1995 Rugby World Cup
The 1995 World Cup was the most insane month of my rugby writing career. There would be 32 matches played in 30 days and I went where the Springboks went and where the All Blacks played. If those two teams weren’t playing, I was on a plane to report on Australia, France and England.
Thursday, May 25th was the historic day the Springboks played in their first ever World Cup match. What made it even more significant was that they played the defending champions Australia. The match was played at Newlands, which was a sell-out of 45 000. The Springboks won 27-18, Joe Stransky starred with 22 points and, to quote Bok coach Kitch Christie, his charges had taken the high road to a potential World Cup semi-final.
Victory against Australia meant the Boks would in all probability play Western Samoa at Ellis Park and avoid a quarter-final at Newlands against England.
There had been intense hype leading into the Springboks’ World Cup opener against Australia and the match had done justice to the occasion. South Africa’s victory had ignited the tournament because South Africans started to believe the Springboks were good enough to win the tournament.
The post Australia euphoria among South Africans was tempered when Jonah Lomu announced himself to the world in the All Blacks 43-19 win against Ireland at Ellis Park on Saturday evening, May 27th.
Lomu scored two tries and created two more with a stunningly destructive display. I had flown from Cape Town to Johannesburg on Saturday morning to be at Ellis Park. The only disappointment was the crowd totaled just 38 000, with the Ellis Park capacity being 60 000.
Within four days I’d experienced the best of a World Cup. The Nelson Mandela moment in opening the World Cup was massive. So too Pieter Hendriks’s try and Stransky’s performance. The crowd at Newlands had been sensational in their support of the Springboks. There was a sense of unity that there hadn’t been since the Springboks’ return from international isolation in 1992.
It was also unique to be watching the All Blacks playing a team other than the Springboks at Ellis Park and South Africans initially didn’t quite know how to react. Who to support? New Zealand or Ireland?
It was a match in which I couldn’t be a loser: my late mother was a Kiwi and my ancestry on my late father’s side is Irish. The match was competitive for the first half an hour. Then Lomu scored his first World Cup try and Ireland never had a chance. Andrew Mehrtens impressed with his goalkicking, the All Black backs looked imposing and as a team the All Blacks put down the early marker as tournament favourites.
I was back on a plane to Cape Town for Tuesday’s Springboks match against Romania, but May 30th felt like an afterthought after the May 25th delight. Newlands was again sold out, but the match lacked the quality or intensity of the World Cup opener against Australia.
It really was a second-rate occasion and the Boks played like a second-rate team. There was clearly a difference in class between the Gold team and the Green team. Robby Brink, Marius Hurter and Krynauw Otto would make their Test debuts against Romania.
Brink, the popular Western Province loose-forward who was controversially selected ahead of his provincial captain Tiaan Strauss, would play his first and last Test within five days.
Adriaan Richter, captaining the Boks against Romania, scored two tries and Gavin Johnson’s boot completed the 21 points. Romanian loose-forward Andrei Guranescu scored a try and flyhalf Illie Ivancuic kicked a penalty in a turgid second half.
The Springboks were uninspired and I couldn’t wait to get to Port Elizabeth for Australia’s showdown with Canada the next day.
I’d get to catch up with Western Province centre Christian Stewart after the match. Stewart was playing for Canada and in 1994 I’d spent a fortnight with Stewart and AJ Venter in Rovigo, Italy. The two were teammates and housemates and I’d flown from my London-base to do an article on their rugby experience in Italy.
Stewart was a character and an outstanding midfielder, who in 1998 would play three Tests for the Springboks.
The Springboks would complete their third match in 10 days against Canada on June 3 in Port Elizabeth and there was enough in the Canadian performance against Australia to know that Christie couldn’t afford to rely exclusively on the players who beat Romania.
The Wallabies on June 1 beat Canada 27-11 in what was Joe Roff’s international debut. Roff, starting on the left wing, was the highlight of the Wallabies victory and the match reinforced the view that the Australians were a spent force. The big names again struggled.
England had beaten Argentina 24-18 and Italy 27-20. Both matches were played in Durban and they were games I watched on television. Rob Andrew scored all 24 points against Argentina, who outscored England by two tries to nil.
Italy, with Diego Dominguez at flyhalf, were a good side and Argentina also were tough. I expected England to win more comfortably but I had underestimated the fight in Argentina and Italy.
France, highly rated, had cruised against Tonga and the Ivory Coast and because of the inferior quality of the opposition, I didn’t quite know what to make of the French.
I was also noticing how different the players’ approach was in a World Cup tournament, as opposed to the normal Test match build up Saturday to Saturday. Playing three matches in 10 days at different venues in different cities was demanding and it was more about getting through the matches with minimal injuries than blowing away an opponent.
The All Blacks were the exception. They’d dismantled Ireland, hammered Wales 34-9 at Ellis Park and crushed Japan 145-17 in Bloemfontein. Marc Ellis scored six tries, Simon Culhane kicked 20 conversions and scored a try and the All Blacks, who scored their first try in the second minute and last one in the 79th minute, scored 21 tries.
It was a Sunday stroll on June 4th for the All Blacks second stringers, which was very different to the brutality of the Springboks 20-nil win against Canada in Port Elizabeth the night before. So much had happened in just 10 days.