Mark Keohane, writing for IOL Sport, in a series reflecting on the 1995 Rugby World Cup
France were a very good side. They were settled in combinations and arrived at the World Cup with the core of players who had beaten the All Blacks 2-0 in a Two-Test series in New Zealand in 1994.
The Boks, who toured New Zealand a month after the French, lost a three-Test series 2-0.
The Boks, in 1995, were a better version of the 1994 tourists to New Zealand and there wasn’t a heck of a lot between the two teams.
France’s discipline had been surprisingly good in their group wins against Tonga, Ivory Coast and Scotland. They had also enjoyed the luxury of two weeks in Durban for the quarter-final and semi-final and had been impressive in destroying Ireland 36-12 in the quarter-finals.
The Boks didn’t need to get out of third gear to dismiss the challenge of Western Samoa in the quarter-finals and coach Kitch Christie had decided to base the Boks in Johannesburg throughout the play-offs. Transvaal, with Christie in charge, would often fly to Durban on the morning of a provincial match against Natal or late afternoon on the Friday.
Christie took a similar approach for the Durban World Cup semi-final. His Boks prepared at altitude.
Christie, in the build-up to the semi-final, had also finally shown his hand as to the starting XV he believed was the best equipped to win the World Cup. He selected Sharks lock Mark Andrews at No 8 and Joel Stransky as flyhalf.
Andrews’s selection was inspired because it allowed Christie to retain the established Transvaal lock pairing of Kobus Wiese and Hannes Strydon, as well as the Transvaal hooker Chris Rossouw. Balie Swart (tighthead prop) and captain Francois Pienaar’s meant that five of the Transvaal pack would start, with regular Transvaal No 8 Rudolf Straeuli on the bench. Christie also picked the Transvaal midfield pairing of Hennie le Roux and Japie Mulder. Sharks right wing, the late James Small, had also played for Transvaal and Christie’s reserves bench included Transvaal scrumhalf Johan Roux and utility back Gavin Johnson.
Christie and Pienaar, throughout the World Cup, replicated what had made Transvaal the premier domestic team in South Africa in the early 1990s.
I had covered the Transvaal beat for Business Day newspaper in 1995 and even though it was a World Cup semi-final week, it felt no different to a week reporting on Transvaal.
There was confidence and calm with Christie and Pienaar, just as there was with the All Blacks leadership. They weren’t saying a heck of a lot in the week, with all the talking coming from the England camp in Cape Town.
The previous week in Johannesburg, there had been so much focus on James Dalton and Pieter Hendriks’s suspension from the tournament and the quarter-final against Western Samoa felt like an afterthought.
Not in the semi-final week. It was all about rugby and there was a lot of respect for the French, whose starting XV for the semi-final read: Jean-Luc Sadourny, Emile Ntamack, Philippe Sella, Thierry Lacroix, Philippe Saint-Andre (captain), Christophe Deylaud, Fabien Galthie, Marc Cecillon, Laurent Cabannes, Abdelatif Benazzi, Olivier Roumat, Olivier Merle, Christian Califano, Jean-Michel Gonzalez and Louis Armary.
There was no obvious favourite for the match, especially with it being played at sea level, although the overseas media seemed to think France were good enough to edge the contest.
I was booked on a 7am Saturday morning flight from Johannesburg to Durban, but there were delays with take-off because of the weather. When we eventually did get in the air, the flight was rerouted to Cape Town and then to George. I eventually arrived in Durban just before 14.00 and I still don’t know how the pilot managed to land us safely. The usual flight time from Johannesburg to Durban is 45 minutes. This Saturday it had taken seven hours to get there.
It was chaos at the old Durban airport. Flights had been delayed and some flights had been cancelled. I was in a bit of a spin, thinking I wasn’t going to make it to the ground in time for kick-off.
I rushed to get a taxi and a gentleman, with a Welsh accent, asked if I was going to the rugby, and if so, could he get a ride?
‘Sure thing,’ I said.
I barely looked up and all I could think was that the Springboks were going to play a World Cup semi-final and I’d be stuck in a taxi somewhere in downtown Durban.
When this gentleman asked me what I did, I responded that I was a rugby reporter and asked him what he did. He said he did a bit of rugby writing for the Times of London. I looked up and saw it was the legendary Welsh and Lions winger Gerald Davies.
He introduced himself and I sheepishly replied: ‘’Thee Gerald Davies ’
‘Aye,’ he said. ‘I played a bit of rugby in my time.’
We eventually did get to the ground, only minutes before the original kick-off time, and those journalists who had been there for some time, told us that the talk was the game would not happen and that South Africa’s inferior disciplinary record would have France declared the winner.
There was as much panic and uncertainty among the South African media as I can imagine there was among the Springboks. There was no way the Boks could lose in this way.
The Welsh referee Derek Bevan had agreed to delaying the kick-off, but was adamant that he would not risk any player’s safety. If he deemed the flooded field a risk, the game would be called off. Playing it the following day was not an option, according to the rules.
Ball boys and cleaning staff took to the field with brooms for an hour to try and sweep away the pools of water. Bevan did an initial inspection and we were told he was undecided. I can only imagine the behind the scenes discussions between Bevan, World Rugby’s leadership and the South African Rugby Union president, the late Doc Luyt.
I can also tell you that there was no way Luyt would have conceded to the game not going ahead. Knowing Doc Luyt, he’d have sent both teams out in scuba gear, with masks and snorkels.
Some have labelled it the wettest Test in rugby history, but that would be a stretch. It was the wettest in Durban and the wettest I’d ever encounter from a soaked press box.