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Invictus - Francois Pienaar interview

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WORLD Cup winning South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar talks to us about Clint Eastwood’s Invictus and playing golf with the movie icon.

He also recalls meeting Nelson Mandela for the first time and what it was really like to live through the experience of the country-unifying World Cup of 1995…

Q. Did you ever imagine that your story would be portrayed by Matt Damon in a movie directed by Clint Eastwood?
Francois Pienaar: [Smiles] Never in my wildest dreams. I always thought that the story was a very good one, and I said right after ’95: “If Hollywood had the opportunity to write a script for South Africa… if you look at the characters and South Africa’s circumstances with Apartheid, they couldn’t have written a better story of how South Africa came together.” It marked the first time in our history that everybody was proud to be a South African. So, I knew it was a special story. I never in my life thought that Matt Damon would be playing me [smiles].

Q. What was it like going through that experience first-hand in ’95? What kind of pressures did you feel under as captain?
Francois Pienaar: I enjoyed it. It’s that old adage: “If you can’t be in the heat of the kitchen, then don’t be there.” I love pressure, I love playing the game and the game is about winning. So, you’re playing hard and you’re getting yourself into a position to be able to compete. But in the end when you get to the finals of a major competition, it’s about margins. And you can only capture those margins and become successful if you’re got the experience and if you’ve trained for those circumstances and situations.

Q. What was it like meeting Nelson Mandela for the first time?
Francois Pienaar: It was incredibly special. I got a phone call to go and see him and I didn’t know what he was going to ask me, or why he wanted to see me. This was in 1994, when he’d just become president of the country… I had sweaty palms sitting in the waiting room. But when he came out he has this booming voice and he started speaking Afrikaan: “Ah, Francois.” He then gave me a hug and we sat down and ordered tea. Immediately I felt like I was talking to a wise man.

Q. Can you remember the exact moment you got to lift the cup? How did that feel? Or is it a blur now?
Francois Pienaar: I’ll never forget that. It was so special when Madiba gave me the cup. He shook my hand and said: “Thank you very much Francois for what you’ve done for the country.” I said to him: “Madiba, you’ve got it wrong. Thank you for what you’ve done for the country.” Because if it wasn’t for him that asked the ANC not to take away the Springbok emblem, and if it wasn’t for him that donned the Springbok jersey, and said to all of South Africa to support our boys, we would not have had the scenes in the streets of South Africa after the match of people just being proud for the first time about their country.

Q. So, what was it like watching the film for the first time and replaying those events?
Francois Pienaar: Absolutely bizarre. You’re too close to it. When you’ve actually lived it, it’s totally different. It was difficult for Warner Bros to write a script about Madiba, because the movie is about Madiba and how this game changed the nation. So, there are moments that aren’t factually correct. But in the end, it’s a story about…. there’s a but of licence in it. But in the end, it’s definitely a story about healing.

Q. What impression did visiting Mandela’s cell on Robben Island make on you?
Francois Pienaar: When I watched the movie with my two boys in LA, and we got to the scene where Matt walks into the cell, it is almost exactly how it happened for me. I was the last man to file in. We’d just beaten Australia, who were the favourites to win the World Cup. We had a very good night out celebrating the victory. I’d never been to Robben Island before. But I was the last guy to file past, and I walked into the cell and I just got this enormous emotion. I touched the walls and looked outside of the bars and it dawned on me how unbelievably generous Nelson Mandela actually is. The fact was he slept there for 27 years and came out of that cell and embraced everyone in South Africa.

So, when I watched that scene I started crying. My two boys looked at me and asked if I was OK. But it brought so many emotions to me. Right after that, we walked… there were still prisoners on the island at that time, and we walked right into the mess hall where they were – and they were all coloured people – but the roof lifted when we walked in. I just realised how powerful Mandela is and was then, when he said he wanted everybody to support the Springboks. If it wasn’t for him, we would not have had the support of everyone in South Africa.

Q. Meeting somebody like Mandela at that time, did it put everything into perspective for you as a human being?
Francois Pienaar: Absolutely. I’ve been very blessed in my life to be able to meet him on several occasions, even post-rugby. I had the opportunity a couple of months ago to go for tea with him. It was just the two of us… I just sat and hold his hand. The world was actually waiting for South Africa to actually go south… but what South Africa has achieved in the last 14 or 15 years I think has astonished the world. But we couldn’t have done that if we didn’t have the platform that was set by Nelson Mandela.

Q. What was it like meeting someone like Clint Eastwood for the first time?
Francois Pienaar: It’s amazing. I had the opportunity to play golf with him. Fortunately, we took his money on the 17th because I partnered with his wife, who is a very good golfer. Clint played with Chester [Williams, from the 1995 Springboks], a team-mate of mine who has a very good handicap [3]. He doesn’t act Dirty Harry… he is Dirty Harry [laughs]! He’s so comfortable in what he does, and he’s so professional. On the set of the movie, he’s just incredible how he does it all.

View photos from the UK premiere of Invictus