Rooting for South Africa

Today I want to talk to you about the game of rugby. It is played with an oval ball, the same shape as your American football, but with none of the padding or protection for the players. Rugby is a game where men are men, although by the time their ears have been ripped off and their noses broken a few times, they are not always immediately recognizable as such. But boy, are they big and scary.

If you are searching for a star for your next horror movie, take a look at a rugby match. They do unspeakable things to each other in that brawling mass of flesh, but they always call the referee 'sir'. It is a game for hooligans played by the English upper class.

To be honest, I have never played it, and between us I don't really understand the rules, but for this week, like the rest of this country, I have become a rugby fan. And that could be connected to the fact that on Sunday in Paris, England will be playing in the World Cup final.

Four years ago we were the victors and then spiraled into decline. Our team tackled like wet paper bags and stubbed their toes every time they tried to kick the ball. Everyone beat us. And in the first game of this World Cup tournament, we were walloped by South Africa.

Then, an extraordinary transformation. England suddenly became world beaters again. We made it to the last eight, and then beat the old enemies of Australia and France to qualify for the final. And guess who we play on Sunday? South Africa. So everyone who can cross the English Channel is now on their way to Paris.

But there is one other thing I can tell you which I won't admit to anyone over here. One part of me would like South Africa to win. And that is because of one 90 year old man who is not well enough to come to the game, but will be at home in South Africa cheering on his team as he cheered them on for the 27 years in which he was a prisoner of his country's former political system.

Nelson Mandela loves his team, and even though they were a public expression of white supremacy, he still put on a rugby shirt to walk out onto the pitch as President and hand them the trophy in 1990. It was a supreme piece of showmanship and statesmanship by a truly great man -- a public expression of harmony and tolerance.

Their team on Sunday has only a few black faces, but to Mandela the important thing will be that they are South African, that all nations and all races can enjoy sport as equals. How could any of us really resent that man enjoying one more triumph?
by Peter Allen