I remember the 1995 Rugby World Cup final like it was nine years ago. Matt Damon lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy while Morgan Freeman smiled on benevolently, and a crowd of computer-generated extras went wild, uniting a nation and signaling the beginning of Clint Eastwood’s inevitable decline.
The truth is, Invictus, Eastwood’s slightly overcooked film about how South Africa’s world cup win brought the country together shortly after the fall of Apartheid, will never dislodge the vivid recollection I have of those days.
There are a few reasons why these memories are so indelible. Firstly, for some inexplicable reason, two days before the final, the Springbok team opted to hold an under-the-radar training session at my school. Classes were abandoned and the entire school relocated to the stands, gawking in disbelief as these fleet-footed, muscle-bound superheroes-made-flesh – the talk of the town, the hope of the nation – went about their routines.
Secondly, the atmosphere in the country really was different. Black and white, rich and poor – the walls between us did seem to come down, as we found common cause in a group of 15 hulking brutes (14 of whom were white) running around a field chasing an oval ball. Unfortunately, the spell didn’t last as long as we hoped it might.
Thirdly, the final was held a week before my barmitzvah (my speech was replete with gratuitous rugby references) so it was a momentous time for me in more ways than one.
And, finally there was the match itself. Diminutive winger, James Small, tackling the monstrous Jonah Lomu. Stransky’s last-gasp drop goal to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Mandela in a Springbok jersey, hand on Francois Pienaar’s shoulder, handing the captain the trophy – the great iconic moment, a snapshot that changed the country, or at least, our conception of the country, in an instant.
I had a friend over who kept Shabbat. He’d come to my house after shul so he could watch the game, evidently unaware that by benefiting from someone else breaking Shabbat, he was as complicit as the person who turned on the TV.
This brings me to another reason why I remember that day so vividly. I wasn’t going to say anything about it, but I’ve been so specific in recounting these memories, I feel it would be in bad faith to leave this out. And also, frankly, this is something I’ve been carrying around for a long time, and I need to unburden myself…
Later that afternoon, with car hooters still honking and South African flags waving everywhere and people still spilling onto the streets in joy and celebration, my friend and I devised a plan to swing this collective goodwill and camaraderie to our advantage. We drew up makeshift forms and went around collecting money for a fake rugby world cup charity fundraiser for our school.
In under an hour, we had signed up more than 250 people for a fundraiser that we had just concocted, handing out cut-up pieces of paper with a random number for a raffle that would never be held, to win a rugby ball, signed by the Springbok squad, that didn’t exist. We raised more money that we’d ever seen in our lives.
I know, I know, terrible right? And it was Shabbat!
I later told my parents the money was from barmitzvah presents, they invested it in a mutual fund that has performed pretty well over the past 24 years, and last week I cashed out and bought myself a Ferrari.
Ok, that last bit isn’t true. My father found out about our scheme and gave it all to the Salvation Army.
This coming Saturday, the Springboks will once again be playing in a world cup final. Once again, the eyes of a nation will be on 15 hulking brutes chasing around an egg-shaped bag of leather. A lot has changed in the interim. Seven of those fifteen are black guys. The country is more divided, and we now know from experience that the oxytocin high that comes with a national sporting triumph can only ever be short-lived. And I have started keeping Shabbat.
I won’t be watching the rugby at its appointed time. Nobody will be turning on the TV for me. Instead, I will gather with friends, roughly seven hours after the final whistle, to watch a delayed rebroadcast of the game.
I have made plans to spend Shabbat with a super-frum community, who will be unaware of the score, unaware there is a rugby world cup on the go, unaware there is a sport called rugby.
And after the game, I will be making a sizeable anonymous donation to charity, as I do every four years when the rugby world cup comes along.
Simon Apfel was born into obscurity, the son of a frozen peas importer and a washing machine. His love of writing has always outshone his ability by a humiliating margin. Nevertheless, he has gone on to achieve some measure of success as a copywriter, journalist and occasional comedy writer. He studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Cape Town, and has written for a variety of local and international publications. For the past five years, he has been chief writer to South Africa’s Chief Rabbi, and has worked extensively on the Shabbat Project, as well as a host of other projects initiated by Chief Rabbi Goldstein.