Mark Keohane, writing for IOL Sport, in a series reflecting on the 1995 Rugby World Cup
The All Blacks media manager Ric Salizzo had promised me an interview with Jonah Lomu as soon as the World Cup was over. It was on condition that I stopped requesting Lomu for a one-on-one, as I had done at the start of every week during the World Cup.
I agreed to be patient and, in hindsight, my timing could have been better than tracking Salizzo down an hour after the final and asking him if I could speak with Lomu.
Salizzo, a Kiwi to the core, was devastated at the 15-12 extra time World Cup final defeat. His tie was undone and his shoulders slumped when he came out of the change room to speak with me.
‘Mate,’ he said. ‘Now is not a good time.’
I was a young reporter, eager for the big interview, and determined to land a one-on-one with Jonah.
I wanted to report on the final through the eyes of Lomu. I felt it would make for something very different. Salizzo again promised that I would still get to speak with Lomu.
This time I didn’t believe him. The World Cup was over, the Springboks were the world champions and the Kiwis would be heading home.
The prospect of the Lomu interview now gone, I focused my energy on telling the story of the Springboks’ remarkable victory, fashioned through Joel Stransky’s boot, a defensive masterclass and superior fitness.
Springbok coach Kitch Christie was a disciplinarian and also non-negotiable on fitness and conditioning. Christie believed that a fitter player always had a fighter’s chance and on June 24, it was the fitness of the Springboks that broke the All Blacks as much as any tackle did.
Emotionally, the All Blacks would have to contend with playing a nation. The memory of the late Nelson Mandela’s on-field appearance pre kick-off wearing Francois Pienaar’s No 6 Springbok jersey never fades.
The press box at Ellis Park was on the halfway line and midway up. I was positioned overlooking the tunnel in what were the best seats in the house. The tension at the stadium was tangible. This was so much more than a rugby final for South Africa. It was about identity, about global acceptance and about change.
The applause when Madiba stepped out onto the field was deafening and the chants of ‘Nelson … Nelson …’ were spine tingling. They were that day and they are today as I recall that moment.
President Mandela had already given the Springboks an advantage.
The atmosphere was on a scale I’d never experienced. Angst, anticipation and awe were emotions that came and went throughout the 100 minutes.
The Boks had fronted the haka and taken the challenge to the All Blacks and Japie Mulder’s first tackle on Jonah Lomu had set the defensive tone. James Small defensively was all over Lomu and Joost van der Westhuizen and Mark Andrews combined for the most decisive of try-saving tackles.
The All Blacks couldn’t get going against the Springboks aggressive defensive attitude, but it was a measure of the Kiwis’ class and pedigree that they put themselves in a position to win the final with less than a minute to go in regular time.
The scores were tied 9-all when Andrew Mehrtens’s attempted drop goal from 30 metres just drifted wide.
But for a few centimetres, rugby’s World Cup history would have been very different and sport may not have immediately been viewed as the national unifier it was with a winning Springboks campaign.
Renowned New Zealand rugby writer and broadcaster Phil Gifford, in his 2014 book ‘Loose Among the Legends’, wrote that Mehrtens turned up to Gifford’s wife Jan’s 50th birthday in 1996 fantasy-theme fancy dress party, dressed in a Springbok No 10 jersey.
‘I said, Mehrts, I know you were born in South Africa, but please don’t tell me your fantasy is to be a Springbok,’ wrote Gifford. ‘No, not at all, said Mehrtens. This is Joel Stransky’s gear. We swapped after the final. My fantasy is to be the guy who kicks the winning goal in the World Cup final; not the dick who misses it.’
Stransky, on June 24, got to turn fantasy into reality with his extra-time drop goal. And by the time he had put the Boks ahead 15-12, the All Blacks were spent. They had no answer to the Boks’ conditioning and it was only later in the evening that we would be told the core of the team had suffered food poisoning. I’ve never believed the story that the All Blacks were deliberately poisoned. More realistically, is the fact that several players ate at a seafood restaurant two nights before the final. It was an amateur action in an amateur era, even if there was nothing amateur about the intensity of the final.
South Africa deserved the win. They were the better team on the day and over the past 25 years, every one of the All Blacks from the final have acknowledged they weren’t good enough in the final.
Fitzpatrick’s class shone through immediately after the final. He was gracious and complimentary of the Springboks.
I left Ellis Park elated and a witness to the greatest moment in Springbok rugby’s history.
It was two days later that I got a call from Salizzo. The All Blacks had stayed on for a few days. He said that he would make good on his promise and if I could get to what was then the Grayston Holiday Inn on Rivonia Road in Sandton in 30 minutes, I would get my one-on-one with Lomu.
I made it there in 15 minutes and there sat Salizzo with Lomu.
The interview lasted 15 minutes but it remains a special one for me. Lomu spoke in awe of the Madiba effect. He said he couldn’t believe ‘Nelson Mandela knew my name was Jonah’. He said that really played with his mind just before kick-off. The atmosphere, he said, was on a scale he’d never known. Equally the Springboks’ defence.
The young giant spoke with such admiration for the Springboks, his enjoyment of South Africa and of how much bigger than rugby the win was for South Africa.
Lomu was quietly spoken and gentle in his delivery.
I asked him about the food poisoning and he shrugged his shoulders.
‘Some of the boys were sick but that isn’t why we lost bro. They were just too good on the day.’
The Boks had won and I could finally write of the World Cup final through the eyes of Jonah. My World Cup was complete.