When Boks began to believe

It's been 20 years since the Springboks won the 1995 World Cup. MARK KEOHANE says it was Pieter Hendriks’ try in the opening match that set them on their way.

Whenever I think of the 1995 World Cup, my first recollection is of Pieter Hendriks embarrassing David Campese defensively.

That was the moment, I believe, when blind faith and hope turned to conviction for the Springboks; the moment when those wearing the green and gold realised how good a team they were and how good a team they could be at the World Cup.

The Wallabies were the world champions but they were a team in decline and one in which many of their most celebrated players were beset by injury.

Many gave the Springboks no chance of beating Australia because of the recent history between the two teams, but it was inaccurate. Those closer to the action knew the Boks were a team on the up mentally, a team with massive self-belief when playing at home and a team among the best conditioned at the World Cup.

The Wallabies had legendary names in their lineup, the most celebrated of which was Campese. But the big-name wing, who would score a record 64 tries in 101 Tests, was no longer the player who tortured defences in the late-1980s and early-90s.

Campese’s attacking game was on the wane and defensively he was at his most vulnerable. New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu would swat him aside in the Bledisloe Cup showdown in Sydney in 1996 to hasten an end to his international career, but in the World Cup opener it was Hendriks who showed Campese the door to international retirement.

Campese had been outstanding at Newlands three years earlier when the Wallabies humiliated the Boks 26-3. It was not the same Campo and it certainly was not the same Bok set-up.

The 1992 pretenders were low on quality and naive to the realities of Test rugby. It was only South Africa’s second Test back after two decades of international isolation and the Wallabies, World Cup winners the previous year, sealed the most emphatic win ever in clashes between the two.

The Wallabies, their media and travelling supporters took too much from the 1992 performance. They refused to believe the Wallabies had aged dramatically since beating the Boks in a three-Test series in Australia in 1993, and there wasn’t an acknowledgement of the improvement among the South African squad. Kitch Christie, who had coached Transvaal to dominate the South African domestic scene, was the new Bok coach and he invested largely in those same Transvaal players.

Christie’s Boks were fit and conditioned at the World Cup and defensively the best side on show. They also had massive self-belief that playing in South Africa made them impossible to beat.

The Springboks of 1992 were awed by their traditional rivals and the players felt intimidated and inferior. Two decades of international isolation was the cause of this insecurity.

The public, administrators and local media were bullish about the strength of the Springboks in 1992, but this was deluded. The players, after losing four of their first five Tests back, knew how much work had to be done.

In 1994, Christie knew what he had done with the Transvaal team and felt he could replicate a short-term plan, especially at home. Christie picked players used to winning and familiar with each other’s games. 

Hendriks was one of Christie’s blue-eyed boys. The coach had always spoken of Hendriks as one of the game’s best finishers and publicly stated he was among the world’s best.

Hendriks did not lack belief. He was vocal in celebrating his try-scoring ability and he always felt he had an attacking edge on Campese. Hendriks, not in an arrogant way, would counter talk of Campese with talk of his own pace, power and track record as a finisher for Transvaal.

Those of us among the South African media covering the World Cup and assigned to the Springboks, could see the difference in the conditioning of the South African players, opposed to the Wallabies.

The Australians had the big names, but they didn’t have the form and they certainly didn’t have the fitness required of a team in a World Cup tournament.

Christie spoke before the game of team effort but he also said he had players capable of producing an X-factor moment that turned games. He spoke specifically of Hendriks, who provided that moment in rounding Campo to score the first and most significant try of the Boks’ 1995 World Cup triumph.

For me, Hendriks’ fist pump, just after beating Campo, is as memorable as Madiba’s moment when he came out wearing Francois Pienaar’s Springbok No 6 jersey and the equal, in terms of memory, of Joel Stransky’s World Cup-winning extra time drop goal.

Stransky was fantastic in the 27-18 win against Australia, scoring a try, kicking four penalties, a conversion, and a drop goal for 22 points. But the magical moment belonged to Hendriks, whose tournament would end in disgrace for kicking and punching in the infamous brawl against Canada at Port Elizabeth’s Boet Erasmus Stadium.

Christie and the Boks knew the value of the Hendriks moment. The public, as the tournament unfolded, would focus on the more appealing Chester Williams’ four-try bonanza against Samoa in the Boks’ quarter-final, and the drama and chaos of their 19-15 semi-final win against France in Durban, when a flooded ground nearly ended the match before it began.

Then, of course, there’s the final, Japie Mulder’s tackle on Lomu, Joost van der Westhuizen’s tackle on Lomu, the Ruben Kruger ‘try’ that every Bok believes was, but was not given, the Andrew Mehrtens drop goal miss from right in front with a minute to play of normal time with the scores tied at 9-9. And, lastly, Stransky’s drop goal in extra time to make it 15-12.

But, for me, the moment of the 1995 World Cup will always be when Hendriks used the open space and scored the perfect wing’s try. He straightened, stood up Campese defensively and beat him for pace on the outside.

– This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images