When international rugby came to Newcastle for the first time on 3 October, 2015, it was fitting that South Africa’s Rugby World Cup 2015 Pool B tie with Scotland at St James’ Park was marked by the induction of Nelson Mandela into World Rugby’s Hall of Fame at a special ceremony prior to kick-off.
Former South African president Mandela provided one of the most iconic images in Rugby World Cup history when he presented Francois Pienaar with the Webb Ellis Cup in 1995 while wearing the Springbok jersey, once regarded as a symbol for the abhorrent Apartheid regime he tireless strove to overthrow.
Twenty-seven of Mandela's 95 years on earth were spent in captivity as a result of his brave fight for freedom and racial equality yet his generosity of spirit and forgiveness knew no bounds.
By putting past injustices to one side with no thoughts of retribution, Mandela showed there was a better way forward while also reinforcing the value that rugby is a vehicle for bringing people together.
A previously divided nation had come together as one, and 20 years on tens of thousands of South African and Scottish rugby supporters did the same on a joyous – and occasionally raucous - weekend in Newcastle which, had he been alive, Mandela would no doubt have fully embraced.
South Africa’s Hon Deputy Minister of Sport and Recreation, Gert C Oosthuizen MP and Francois Pienaar, who was handed to Webb Ellis Cup by Mandela as captain of the victorious Springbok team, were present at St James’ Park to receive the commemorative Hall of Fame cap from World Rugby Chairman Bernard Lapasset on his behalf.
The power of sport
Speaking about Mandela’s induction, Lapasset announced: “The World Rugby Hall of Fame recognises those who have made an indelible mark on our sport through feats on the field of play, displays of great character or through their tireless and inspirational work in driving forward our great game.
“Mandela certainly fits in that category. He was instrumental in turning Rugby World Cup 1995 into a momentous occasion that united the South African nation through the power of sport.
“By supporting the Springboks so passionately and publicly on their way to victory, Mandela helped to change attitudes, soften hearts and convince minds of the right course of history for his country to take and, in the process, became a wonderful example to us all.”
A fortnight earlier, five of Mandela’s countrymen were inducted into World Rugby’s Hall of Fame, alongside 20 other greats of the game, as Wembley Stadium prepared to stage the pivotal Rugby World Cup Pool C tie between the All Blacks and Argentina.
Players from the pioneering days of the sport in Victorian times through to the professional era were recognised for their contribution to rugby whether as a player, coach or, in Bill McLaren’s case, as a broadcaster without peers.
Eighteen captains of their country were included in the list of 25, Irishman Fergus Slattery and Mervyn Davies just two of the names that ‘The voice of rugby’ McLaren once reeled off in his unforgettable BBC commentaries.
With seven inductees Wales enjoyed the highest representation of any one country. Joining twice-capped coaching guru Carwyn James on the list were many of the players who benefitted from his wisdom in that halcyon period of success that Wales enjoyed in the 1970s.
All of the inductees were awarded framed caps from Lapasset and World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper, with family members representing those individuals who have long since passed away such as war heroes and former England internationals Ronald Poulton-Palmer and Edgar Mobbs.
Chris Rea and Pablo Mamone, who form the World Rugby Hall of Fame panel along with Henri Garcia, Nigel Starmer-Smith, Don Cameron, Jim Webster and secretary Chris Thau, were also in attendance on a night when the loudest and longest round of applause was reserved for former Springbok captain Joost van der Westhuizen.
To a man and woman, a packed room stood to acknowledge van der Westhuizen as he was wheeled onto the stage by his brother Peter.
Once voted by rugby fans as the greatest scrum-half to have appeared at the Rugby World Cup, the 1995 winner has also won universal admiration for the courage he has shown since being diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2011.
The full list of inductees into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2015 (in alphabetical order) is:
Phil Bennett (Wales), Naas Botha (South Africa), Gordon Brown (Scotland), Marcel Communeau (France), Gerald Davies (Wales), Mervyn Davies (Wales), Danie Gerber (South Africa), Tim Horan (Australia), Andy Irvine (Scotland), Carwyn James (Wales), Barry John (Wales), Tom Kiernan (Ireland), Nelson Mandela (South Africa), Gwyn Nicholls (Wales), Basil Maclear (Ireland), Bill McLaren (Scotland), Edgar Mobbs (England), Hennie Muller (South Africa), Morne du Plessis (South Africa), Ronald Poulton-Palmer (England), Tom Richards (Australia), Jean-Pierre Rives (France), Fergus Slattery (Ireland), Wavell Wakefield (England), Joost van der Westhuizen (South Africa), John Lewis Williams (Wales).
For more information on the Hall of Fame visit, www.worldrugby.org/halloffame