Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison, and in the end he forced the government to let him loose. Most people—myself included—would have been pretty pissed off when they got out. They’d be looking for revenge. Not Mandela. Most people—myself included—figured South Africa would soon descend into race war as the blacks got even for the atrocities committed against them during apartheid. But Nelson Mandela was determined to avoid that. He wanted, somehow, to unite the nation, black and white. His main tool to avoid violence was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But another thing he wanted to use was rugby.
(Almost 20 years later, there is still tension and a great deal of economic disparity between black and white South Africans. The country has a lot of problems. There has been violence. But there has not been race war, at least so far. For 20 years South Africa has avoided the ugly fate of Zimbabwe. I believe this is almost entirely attributable to Mandela’s policies.)
South Africa is sports mad on a scale that dwarfs NASCAR or the NBA. In 1995, blacks played soccer and whites played rugby. Blacks (including Mandela while he was in jail) rooted against the national team, the Springboks. I would have, too, wouldn’t you? Whites chafed at the boycotts that had kept them out of international competition for a long time. The Springboks were no longer the team they used to be; they hadn’t been able to play against the big boys for years. Mandela went to the captain of the team and asked him to do the impossible: Win the Rugby World Cup. And they did.
I don’t know if Mandela was quite as hands-on with the team as he is shown here, if he was as caught up in their games, but who cares? The spirit of the story is accurate, and it’s a real crowd-pleaser.
This is the second good sports movie this season, following The Blind Side, and of course they are both about much more than sports or I wouldn’t give you a nickel for either of them. I know about as much about rugby as I know about buzkashi, the national sport of Afghanistan, where horsemen hassle over the headless carcass of a goat instead of a football. Rugby is very strange to watch, with about twenty guys huffing and puffing in a tangle called a scrum. Suddenly the ball pops out, and the mayhem begins, and seems to just keep going on and on, with the ball being tossed about and kicked. It makes no sense to me (I didn’t understand what was going on in the scrum, but I suspected they were up to no good in there), but that didn’t matter. You don’t need to know anything about rugby to enjoy this movie. I could tell when they had scored a goal, or a point, or a home run or a touchdown or whatever they call it because the director, Clint Eastwood, wisely showed us the scoreboard when that happened. That was all you really needed to know. And the crowd went wild!
I have to note that I’ll bet the players of rugby and Australian rules football regard our National Football League as a bunch of overpaid wusses, sissies, and nancy boys. NFL guys go out there with enough armor plating to stop a howitzer shell. Rugby and Aussie rules players go onto the field in sweaters and boxer shorts, and the play is just as violent, if not more. They don’t even wear helmets! In America, helmets are recommended in croquet, ping-pong, and Scrabble. What’s the deal here? Are they made of sterner stuff, or are the South African hospitals full of drooling, brain-damaged ex-ruggers?