At times it was brutal, often it was downright ugly, but who cares? In the end there can have been few more poignant sights than that of Siya Kolisi, a boy from a dusty, poverty-stricken South African township, on Saturday lifting the Rugby World Cup following an emphatic victory over England.
The first black man to captain the Springboks hoisted the trophy high into the Yokohama night and was instantly showered by golden streamers as fireworks lit up the sky at the end of a momentous 32-12 triumph.
It was a scene destined for posterity, and sporting showreels the world over, and one which prompted tears from South Africans on the field and off it.
“Since I have been alive I have not seen South Africa like this,” Kolisi said. “It was like in ’95,” he added, referring to the Rainbow Nation’s first World Cup triumph, on home soil.
That victory was immortalised by Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, wearing then-captain Francois Pienaar’s number six jersey.
That gesture was mirrored on Saturday when a beaming President Cyril Ramaphosa also donned the number six shirt, now worn by Kolisi, as he watched the presentation pitchside, waving to the captain who replied with a victory sign and a clenched fist.
“So many challenges we have,” Kolisi said. “Coach (Rassie Erasmus) told us we are not playing for ourselves, we are playing for the people back home. We are really proud as South Africans. Not many people gave us a chance. We had to believe in each other and our plan. We love you, South Africa, and we can achieve anything if we work together.”
Giant number eight Duane Vermeulen agreed. “We are doing it for each other but also for 57 million people back home in South Africa,” the man of the match said.
We wanted to be consistent as a team. We wanted to create hope in the end and hopefully we achieved that tonight.”
This night was all South Africa’s as they won their third World Cup to draw level with New Zealand as the most successful side in the tournament’s history. With three cups from three finals, they are the only nation with a 100 per cent record in the showcase match.
England lost finals in 1991 and 2007, the latter to South Africa, and now join France as three-time runners-up.
Even before the full time whistle went, Sakhumzi bar in Johannesburg’s Soweto township erupted into frenzy of cheering and singing as South Africa closed in on the win.
It was a sight once unthinkable in a country where rugby was once a ‘white man’s game’.
The crowd at this outdoor bar on Vilakazi Street in Soweto — made famous by being the home of two of the most celebrated resisters of apartheid, late former president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu — reflected the harmonious multiracial society that South Africa still aspires to become.
Black, white and some mixed-race fans donned Springbok shirts and shared drinks as their team dominated against England to bring the trophy back home.
For many this was South Africa’s most unifying game of rugby since the 1995 final win against the All Blacks of New Zealand, when Mandela donned a springbok jersey to unite a nation trying to heal the scars left over from racist white minority rule.
Mandela had become his country’s first black leader just a year before South Africa won the 1995 tournament.
“I’m so proud. It’s our first win with a black captain,” said Sibusiso Radebe, 37, an insurance underwriter, referring to captain Siya Kolisi.
“In ’95 the game was still dominated by whites but that has really changed,” he said, as fans chanted “Siya” behind him