Invictus: South Africa’s Inspiring Story with Rugby

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The tragic and inspiring story of South Africa’s relationship with rugby.

“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”

The words of Willian Ernest Henley were a shining light; they were a beacon of hope for 27 years while Nelson Mandela lay cooped up in a dark, dirty, dingy prison cell on Robben Island. For 27 long years, the words echoed throughout that cell as Mandela recited them.

When he was released, once he became the first black President of South Africa, Mandela shared this inspiration with Francois Pienaar (the then captain of South Africa’s rugby team).

What few people realise is that Henley wrote this poem from a hospital bed. In the darkest moment of his life, he decided that he was stronger than whatever he would face; his “head was bloody but unbowed”.
Little did Henley know that his words would inspire a man who would rewrite history. Sometimes we underestimate the sheer power of words. Henley’s words inspired Mandela (and likely many more); Mandela then inspired generations and became South Africa’s national liberator.

The chain does not end there – Pienaar, inspired by Mandela, captained South Africa to their first-ever Rugby World Cup win, thus inspiring another generation.

Words, music, and sport; these three artforms have such immense power to elicit emotion and inspiration. If you have watched the film ‘Invictus’ – starring Matt Damon (as Pienaar) and Morgan Freeman (as Mandela), then you will at least have some understanding of the richness of the tragic history of South Africa, and how these art forms can have such power.

South Africa has come such a long way since the Mandela days. And, although bombarded with the negatives and the issues with the world, sometimes, just sometimes, things fall into place perfectly. They fall into place and create a beautiful piece of poetic history. Step forward, Siya Kolisi…

From the impoverished town of Zwide, Kolisi was born when his mother was just 16, and his father was in his final year at school. He was later raised by his grandmother after his mother’s death when he was a child. Inspired by his love of sport and his religious beliefs, Kolisi vowed to change his fortunes…he would go on to do just that.

After gaining an excellent reputation in rugby, Kolisi was appointed as South Africa’s first-ever black captain in 2017. If only Mandela had been there to see the day.

Kolisi may have led his South Africa side to the World Cup Final, but they were still underdogs going into the game. With Eddie Jones’ England side teaching the All Blacks (New Zealand) a lesson in the semi-final, you would have been well within your rights to worry for the sake of whoever had to encounter them next.

But straight from the start South Africa looked composed. They were stronger in the tackles, stronger in the scrums, and took advantage of the penalties that England conceded. They began to get points on the board. When the second half came, England had run out of ideas and South Africa had found gears that we didn’t even know they had. England was now holding out, not for a result, but their dignity or whatever remained of it.

Then the final whistle blew. And like we so often see in huge sporting events, there was the extreme contrast in emotions. Both teams had their heads in their hands, both crying, but the way they were feeling could not have been more different.

Kolisi said that he’s “Never seen South Africa like this” and that they have shown that, “We can achieve anything if we work together as one.”
Then there was the moment that the entire nation of South Africa had waited for. A moment that they thought they would never see. A black president of South Africa and a black captain of the South Africa rugby team holding up the illustrious Webb Ellis Cup.

That picture. The picture of Kolisi holding that trophy. The image of the South African squad (regardless of colour or creed) celebrating in jubilation. That picture is history. Like Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston; and like Bobby Moore being held aloft by Ray Wilson and Geoff Hurst while the Jules Rimet gleamed. Leave a space in the hallway of iconic sporting photos for Siya Kolisi.

Kolisi said that he’s “Never seen South Africa like this” and that they have shown that, “We can achieve anything if we work together as one.” This humble and calm leadership was paramount for the South Africa team’s success. Pienaar himself said that he’s a “big fan of his” and that this win was more significant than his in 1995.

The stage of sport can, in general, conquer and inspire. And the day this is no longer the case, then we can bring the curtain down.

Despite obviously wanting England to win, a little part of me was happy when we didn’t. There’s just something about the romance of sport. There was something more critical than penning Eddie Jones’ name on the knighthood list.

Even if inadvertently so, we helped destiny take its course. And we all sat and watched. We sat and watched as history unfolded before our very eyes. We sat and watched as we were shown once again, that sport can make us unconquerable; it can make us Invictus.

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