In the second instalment of a series celebrating rugby’s power to unite, JON CARDINELLI reflects on Siya Kolisi’s first match as Springbok captain in 2018.
It doesn’t get any better than watching a big game at Ellis Park. Over the past 15 years, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the spiritual home of South African rugby regularly and witness some truly unforgettable contests.
I wasn’t there when Nelson Mandela handed Francois Pienaar the Webb Ellis Cup after the 1995 World Cup final. Those who were – including a young Bryan Habana, who was watching from the stands – have described it as one of the most inspirational moments of their lives.
I managed to make it up to Johannesburg for another nation-building event in June 2018. All the talk in the buildup to that fixture against England was about the new Springbok captain. A black African was chosen to lead the Test team into battle for the first time in SA Rugby’s 126-year history.
The atmosphere at Ellis Park ahead of kick-off was an experience in itself. A diverse crowd packed into the stands and one large group of fans – the Gwijo Squad – sang and danced as if there was already a reason to celebrate.
As this scene played out in the stands, some of my older colleagues in the press box grew emotional. It was, suggested the more seasoned scribes, a repeat of 1995.
And then it happened. Siyamthanda Kolisi walked down the Ellis Park tunnel and then accelerated on to the pitch. The crowd recognised Kolisi’s arrival as the breaking of a barrier. They rose as one to celebrate the start of a new era.
That moment was not Kolisi’s alone, though. Six black Africans started for the Boks that day to break the previous record. The most transformed South African team in history showed terrific character to fight back from a 21-point deficit and beat England 42-39.
The Boks overcame a number of challenges en route to winning the 2019 World Cup in Japan. That journey began at Ellis Park on 9 June 2018, though, when Kolisi and his band of brothers took one giant step for national unity.