When Boks held off Le Bleus in the wet

In an extract from his book, The Springboks and the Holy Grail, DAN RETIEF relives the 1995 World Cup semi-final between South Africa and France that was played in monsoon conditions, 20 years ago today.

Soaking rain began to fall on the Kingdom of the Zulus on the afternoon before the semi-final, and on the morning of the game – Saturday, 17 June – it was still teeming down. The esplanade was completely obscured when I looked out from my room in a high-rise beachfront hotel. Still, I thought, Kitch Christie’s shock decision to play his primary lineout lock Mark Andrews at No 8, a position he had not played since school, might pay off in what was going to be a war of attrition among the forwards. Noticing how the French used their tall forwards to peel off the back of the lineout, Christie had decided that he needed the grunt of Kobus Wiese and Hannes Strydom at lock, and the tall presence of Andrews at the back of the formation to stop Les Tricolores from throwing there.

The ploy worked for Christie, and he would repeat it in the final – but for a different reason. This time, it was to exploit the All Blacks’ lack of height at the back of the lineout.

Andrews, though, nearly fudged it before he even got the chance to run on to the pitch, but fortunately his roommate Joel Stransky’s quick thinking saved the day. Stransky recalled taking a phone call one afternoon.

‘I roomed with Mark the whole way. We were in our room, lying on our beds relaxing, when the phone rang. It was Kitch. He said, “Is Mark there?”

I said, “Ja, just hold on, Coach.” I gave the phone to Mark, they went chat, chat, then Mark said, “No, Coach, I don’t think I could.”

I said, “Well, what did he say?”

“He asked if I could play flank.”

“And you said no?”

Mark said, “Ja.”

And I said, “Are you f**king mad!”

He said, “What do you mean?”

I said, “Mark, it’s the semi-final of the World Cup. You have to play anywhere the coach wants you to.”

Then the phone rang again. This time, Coach said, “Can you play No 8?”

“Yeah, Coach, of course I can!” said Mark.’

The monsoon presented quite a problem for us intrepid laptop-wielding reporters as we set off for Kings Park. I had gone out to buy a plastic raincoat, only to find that the outdoor shop had sold out of the nifty little fold-into-a-packet type of covers, as well as all their rain suits for golfers. So I bought a dark-green jacket, but its towelling lining was indicative of the garment’s water-resistant qualities. As I left the pressroom that had been set up in the old Kingsmead soccer stadium and pulled on the jacket, the rain drops went straight through the outer covering. At least with the lining I could turn the thing inside out and use it to dry myself later on, when I had to resort to emergency measures in order for my match report to reach the Sunday Times on deadline.

From the room-service trolley I had helped myself to a black garbage bag in which to wrap my laptop, but all my precautions proved to be useless once we reached the press seats in the stadium. The writers had been given prime seats right on the halfway line, and well forward – in fact, so far forward that there was no cover from the roof. The whole area was awash. The desk was sopping wet, and because there were no drainage holes in the seats, you actually ended up sitting in a little pool of water.

There was a room set aside for the media inside the stadium, but so many had retreated there that there were no telephone plugs or power points available – and my old Olivetti needed, at all times, to be connected to both if I was to file my story.

My brief for the afternoon was a simple one: ‘We’re giving over the back page to the semi-final – fill it!’ Difficult but doable if you have a match to report on, but it soon became apparent that there might not be a match. Referee Derek Bevan was concerned for the safety of the players in the pools of water – as one of the assistants remarked, ‘Someone might drown’ – and whether it was even possible to play rugby in these conditions.

No problem, we’ll come back tomorrow, but big problem filling the back page. I stashed my laptop indoors and went down to the field to assess the ‘state of play’. I soon discovered that ‘coming back tomorrow’ represented a massive problem for the Springboks.

Natal Rugby Union officials were feverishly trying to find a way to ensure that the field was playable – even sending on some of the Zulu staff to try to sweep away the biggest pools and sending an SOS to the adjacent Durban Country Club, one of South Africa’s top golf courses, to try to borrow some pumps to suck the water off the field. The crowd was in remarkably good spirits, as Durban’s rain was, at least, warm, and oblivious to the drama playing out on the field.

In the meantime, I had picked up a story that the Springboks’ jerseys had presented some problems. Joost van der Westhuizen, Joel Stransky and André Joubert, among others, normally played in short sleeves, but because of the wet conditions, they wanted to play in long sleeves – especially Joubert, who felt that the sleeves would help him catch the high balls that the French were sure to launch at him. 

However, if they decided to wear the jerseys of the reserves, the jersey numbers would be wrong, and spare jerseys had no numbers at all. When Morné du Plessis informed officials of the situation, he was told that under no circumstances would this be allowed. The Bok camp then tried to convince match director John Jeavons-Fellows, a member of the IRB, that the original jerseys had been taken away in the Springboks’ bus. Even Louis Luyt got involved, but Jeavons-Fellows put his foot down and said that if the Boks did not run out in the correct numbers, they would be in danger of forfeiting the match.

Forfeiting the match? No way! Yes, certainly. But when I saw Louis Luyt angrily exchanging words with French World Cup director Marcel Martin, I soon became aware of a far more serious problem. The reason for their altercation was shocking. If the game was abandoned before it could start, or at any point once it had started, and the teams were level with South Africa not having scored more tries than the French, then, according to the rules of the tournament, the Springboks would lose the match.

The rules clearly stated that in the event of such circumstances, the team with the least number of players red-carded in the tournament would be deemed the winners. South Africa, of course, had James Dalton sent off in Port Elizabeth, while the French had no send-offs. It would have been a dreadful conclusion to South Africa’s tournament, and later Luyt would reveal that he was convinced Martin was doing his level best to have the game called off.

The rules made no provision for a postponement, and it also transpired that the Springboks had already checked out of their hotel and were due to fly back to Johannesburg after the game that night. If an emergency postponement was decided upon, they would have had nowhere to stay.

Bevan, however, was a man schooled in the great rugby tradition of the Welsh valleys and he was determined that there would be no contrived ending. There was a spot in the World Cup final up for grabs and he wanted the teams to slug it out toe to toe. While waiting to see what would transpire, I experienced a surrealistic moment that has lived with me ever since. Some of the Boks had emerged from the dressing room to look at the pitch and get some fresh air, and Joel Stransky, in running shoes and a tracksuit top, came over to me and casually asked, ‘Do you think we’re going to get on?’

I told him what I knew, but I was astonished at how calm he was. Here he stood on the brink of a World Cup semi-final that would be played in the worst conditions imaginable – or would not take place at all – and the Springbok flyhalf was as relaxed as if we were discussing where we might meet for a beer afterwards!

‘Weren’t we?’ quipped Joel when I interviewed him for this book and mentioned the incident. But he then went on to give some insight into the kind of temperament required to succeed in a cauldron of pressure that few ever experience.

‘I’ve always had this view that in life we should try not to worry about things that are out of our control,’ Stransky explained.

‘I didn’t always get it right – for some games you get more nervous than for others. For me, whether the kick-off was at 3pm, 5pm or 8pm was not much of an issue – for me, the mornings were always the worst. Time just seemed to drag. But once we got to the ground, I was normally quite calm. And I think that when we got to the ground that day, we were probably nervous. It was the cup semi-final, and I think that’s when natural instinct takes over. For me, that means to calm down and not stress, because there is nothing you can do about it.

‘If you did sit there and stress and worry before a game, you just used up all your energy from nerves. You worried about things that were completely out of your hands. I was fortunate that I could switch off. I think that’s why I was a good goal-kicker. If you chat to a psychologist, he will tell you that you cannot concentrate for 80 minutes. Cricketers cannot concentrate for a whole session or for three sessions in a row – you have to have the ability to switch off and switch on again, and I think the guys who can do that are the ones who can deal with the pressure. I am fortunate that it is something I was blessed with. We were very aware that if we did not get on the pitch, we were out. However, I had great faith in Doc Luyt. He would never have allowed that to happen – he would never! We would have played in a swimming pool if need be!’

Soon there was a lull in the deluge, and then word came that an attempt would be made to start the game in half an hour. It was decision time for me. I clearly couldn’t risk getting my laptop or cell phone (one of those old brick-like jobs) wet, and the landlines had been knocked out. How to get my copy through? The only solution was for me to hightail it back to the pressroom at Kingsmead Stadium, where there were hopefully TV screens, electrical power and working telephones. For the first edition, I hastily dictated some copy about the threat of forfeiture hanging over the Boks, the goings-on among officials, the weather and other conditions, and the literal pool of water the semi-final would be played in.

‘Thanks,’ said the chief sports sub, Gavin Schmidt. ‘We’ll fill the page with pictures and you can go big on the match report.’ And then it was on: an hour and a half after the scheduled start, Derek Bevan blew the opening whistle of one of the most remarkable Test matches ever. From the outset, the players slipped, slid and sent up sprays of water as they tried to gain control of the ball. Some later described the game as a farce, and I suppose it was, but it stands out in my mind as one of the most nail-biting matches ever.

The Boks started off well, forcing a pushover try by Ruben Kruger to lead 10-0 after 24 minutes. But by half-time it was 10-6. Then 13-6, then 13-9, then 16-9, then 16-12, then 19-12, then 19-15 as Stransky and Thierry Lacroix (who would guide Natal to a Currie Cup victory in the same stadium later that year) gave an exceptional display of goal-kicking while often having to move their kicking tees to spots where they did not float and where their studs could get some grip in the water-logged turf.

And so the Springboks were leading 19-15 with four minutes to play. The French were running rampant and the Boks were making mistakes. Stransky’s kick-off didn’t go 10m, James Small knocked on and Lacroix sent a high kick on to Joubert. The fullback, seemingly oblivious of his broken hand, had taken everything thrown at him, sometimes with the help of Small, but this time he dropped the ball. Big Abdel Benazzi came steaming in, picked up the ball and hurled himself at the line. A try would have made it 19-20, and regardless of the conversion, there would simply not have been time for the Boks to get back in front with just over a minute left to play. It seemed impossible that Benazzi would be stopped – but he was, short by just centimetres.

Small threw himself head-on into the bigger and heavier Frenchman, they connected, right shoulder to right shoulder, and the big loose forward’s outstretched hand, straining to deposit the ball over the line, came down just short. To this day, Benazzi and his teammates contend that it was a try, but while making the updated Springbok Saga series for SuperSport, I was able to study the footage in super slo-mo, time and again, and I have no doubt that Benazzi did not score. Amazingly, the line was visible; amazingly, Bevan saw it too and did not award the score.

Ironically, Bevan then made a mistake, because the ball had spurted forward off Benazzi’s hand. It should have been a scrum to the Boks, but Bevan awarded the put-in to the French. Less than a minute to go. Scrum collapses. French get another scrum awarded to them, some of their backs come rushing in to add weight, but down it goes again.

A third reset, and this time the ball emerges and is flicked to Lacroix, who is hit hard by Stransky and Hennie le Roux.

This time the scrum goes to the Boks, and they know they have to get the ball, kick it out, and they’re through to the final. It’s a do-or-die situation, and Kobus Wiese utters immortal words as he grabs tighthead prop Balie Swart, who had been down injured with a torn rib cartilage, to go down for the hit. ‘You can go up, and you can go down, but you’re not coming back!’ The hit is good, Chris Rossouw scoops the ball back, Johan ‘Johnny’ Roux passes it to Stransky, and he sends it spiralling away into the stands before immediately jumping for joy with the rest of the Springboks. The vanquished French just crumple into the mud, many of them in tears.

Sport truly is the theatre of life.

The Boks are in the final. Unexpectedly, perhaps luckily, but gloriously … in the final. When it was all over, my match report for the Sunday Times filed, I sat shivering (in Durban!) and caught the eye of former Wallaby lock Peter FitzSimons, who was covering the tournament for the Sydney Morning Herald. We shook our heads simultaneously, incredulous at what we had just witnessed.

I rather liked the last line of my match report: ‘Vive le Francois!’

VIDEO: Abdel Benazzi denied try

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Photo: Tertius Pickard/Gallo Images

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Simon Borchardt