South Africa's Mark Andrews (right) leaps to catch the ball during the Test match between England and South Africa at Twickenham, London, November 29 1997. Picture: JONNY EGGITT / AFP
South Africa's Mark Andrews (right) leaps to catch the ball during the Test match between England and South Africa at Twickenham, London, November 29 1997. Picture: JONNY EGGITT / AFP

Paris — As a member of the South African team that won the 1995 World Cup and was later immortalised in the Clint Eastwood film Invictus, Mark Andrews is assured of a place in rugby history.

“We were just out of isolation, [Nelson] Mandela was the new president, it was an opportunity to show the world who we were,” Andrews said.

SA had been released in 1992 from sporting exile, prompted by years of apartheid government, and Andrews, with his trademark headband, was a new breed of Springbok lock when he was fast-tracked into the national rugby team in 1994.

He was not the cumbersome lump who had occupied that position in years gone by, but an athletic ball-carrier whose handling owed much to his early career as a water-polo player.

As he looks back 24 years to those heady days when Mandela was forging his “rainbow nation”, a shiver runs through him.

“I loved the World Cup up until the semifinals,” Andrews says. “Then I hated it. It was the most terrifying thing I [had] ever experienced.”

We were driving to practice on the Tuesday before the final and passed this massive newspaper billboard that had this big slogan: ‘Will Andrews cost us the World Cup final?’
Mark Andrews, former Bok lock

The reason for the terror was coach Kitch Christie’s decision, based on his desire for more height at the back of the line-out, to switch Andrews to No 8 for the semifinal against France and the subsequent final against New Zealand.

“The last time I played eighthman I was 13! It was crazy. But Kitch said I reminded him of Morné du Plessis and that I could be as good as him.

“In the semifinals I was up against [Laurent] Cabannes and [Abdelatif] Benazzi and in the final there was Josh Kronfeld and Zinzan Brooke.

“They weren’t exactly beginners in their position. Zinzan was the best eighthman in the world. We were driving to practice on the Tuesday before the final and passed this huge newspaper billboard that had this big slogan: ‘Will Andrews cost us the World Cup final?’

“To be 22 and have that pressure was horrendous. Thank God it worked out.”

Joel Stransky’s extra-time drop goal that gave the Boks a 15-12 win against the Jonah Lomu-inspired All Blacks ensured that it worked out. Not just for Andrews, who had been replaced by Rudi Straeuli in the extra period, and the Boks, but for the entire nation, united by enthusiasm and excitement.

Mandela had ensured that by turning up at the Ellis Park final wearing a Springbok jersey bearing the No 6 worn by captain Francois Pienaar. It was the image that captured the imagination of the world — and Hollywood.

The long-term effect of winning in 1995 has been questioned by many, but Andrews is in no doubt it helped to break down barriers.

“I remember a couple of months later playing golf in the Eastern Cape and these fellows came out of the bush where they were living and asked to caddie for us.

“One guy looks at me and says: ‘I know you’ but he couldn’t work out where from. When we reached the fourth hole he started jumping up and down and pointing at me and shouting ‘Bokke! Bokke! Andrews!’

“I was amazed. If this guy living in the bush in the middle of nowhere recognised me then we had done something right.”

Andrews, who also played in the 1999 World Cup and won 77 caps before retiring from the game in 2004, is now a “semi-retired” property developer.

He will be watching this year’s World Cup from his home in the Eastern Cape and he is quietly confident that the Boks will lift the Webb Ellis Cup for the third time.

“I rate them up there even if they are fifth in the world rankings,” he says. “You have to take note of their performance over the last six months. They drew with New Zealand in Wellington, gave Australia a proper smack and beat a good Argentina side.

“They have depth in most positions and they have a number of world-class players. Handre Pollard at No 10 is a world-class player, possibly the best flyhalf in the world today, and Malcolm Marx at hooker has an incredible presence.

“You have a world-class lock pairing and the wingers are phenomenal, they have the ability to create space and finish.”

Andrews, who played under Pienaar during the 1995 World Cup and Joost van der Westhuizen four years later, is also impressed by current captain Siya Kolisi, the first black player to skipper SA at a World Cup.

“Helluva guy,” he says. “Very humble, solid and a decent human being. Reminds me of Gary Teichmann. He’s not going to give a big speech to inflame the team but he is a solid leader and the players like him and will follow him.

“One of the strengths of this team is that you no longer have ‘quota’ players who in the past have struggled and affected the psychology of the team. Everyone in this team, regardless of his skin colour, deserves to be there. Now we have the best 15 taking the field.”

Andrews said coach Rassie Erasmus has also restored the fear factor to the Boks. “We lost that for a while. Now Rassie seems to be getting that back. And that is a good sign for the Springboks.”

AFP