The 2009 film ‘Invictus’ tells the story of how the South African national rugby team overcame the odds and and won the 1995 rugby world cup. It was a significant moment in the history of both the sport and the nation. The film probably overstates the ‘underdog’ nature of the team, given that the Springboks have been consistently one of the top rugby playing nations in the world ever since, managing to regain the trophy again in 2007 and (despite playing poorly by their own standards) finishing third in this year’s tournament, knocking my beloved Wales out along the way.
Nonetheless, it is a film that is well worth watching if you have a spare 133 minutes or so and if the odd dramatic licence is taken, it captures the spirit of the victory pretty well.
It was a fairy tale sporting moment, a moment that the Rainbow Nation was able to unite and rejoice in the post apartheid era. Nelson Mandela leading the celebrations is an evocative image.
It would certainly take somebody pretty churlish to be upset that South Africa triumphed that day.
I was sixteen at the time and I was that churlish.
Because, as a rugby fan, it was clear to me that the wrong team had won. I was not uneducated, I knew all about the political significance of the moment. The release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid were things I understood and genuinely valued.
But New Zealand were the best team in the tournament and following the worst ever performance at a world cup by my own team, who crashed out in the group stages, I had very much pinned my colours to their mast.
I’ve never been to New Zealand, I have no special affiliation to that nation. I had no reason to support them at all.
But New Zealand had Jonah Lomu.
And he was awesome.
Not only was he head and shoulders the best player on the planet at that moment in time, he played with a charisma and a ruthlessness that had my peers and I in awe. Lomumania had swept my school and I was carried along with it.
We all wanted to be him.
I didn’t even play rugby, but I recall running around my living room (don’t tell my mum) cushion in hand, knocking invisible opponents out of the way before diving onto the sofa scoring try after imaginary try.
He deserved the world cup on his own and however compelling the narrative of a South Africa victory may have been, I was incensed that he didn’t get it.
New Zealand are now reigning champions and the first team to win the tournament back to back but Lomu never got his world cup medal. Despite a serious medical condition he was again sensational at the 1999 world cup but then his health problems began to get in the way and he retired from international rugby in 2002.
I saw him play for the Cardiff Blues in 2006, toward the end of his career. The fact he was even able to play at this point was testament to his spirit. He may not have been at the peak of his powers but he was still the reason behind the huge crowds the team attracted that year.
He was a monster on the pitch but always came across as a genuinely nice bloke off it.
He was easily the most exciting rugby player of his generation and quite possibly of all time, and he achieved all of this with a debilitating medical condition.
It’s a genuine tragedy that he passed away this morning aged only forty.