As the top man in the world game, Bernard Lapasset paid due homage to Nelson Mandela on behalf of “the rugby family”. The 66-year-old French chairman of the IRB expressed his pride that the aforementioned family could play “its small part during the most unforgettable of World Cups in supporting Mr Mandela’s efforts to establish the new South Africa and that our tournament came to symbolise the emergence of a new nation”.
Recalling Mandela’s momentous role at Ellis Park almost 20 years ago, Lapasset witnessed Madiba’s “incredible impact on his nation and his people. His wisdom, intelligence and sheer presence was a wonder to behold”.
All very laudable and eloquent and no more than Mandela deserved for turning the 1995 final into one of the most
historic events of the 20th century. In one sense it was a pity that Lapasset didn’t offer any apology for all the years when rugby could have demonstrated its disgust at South Africa’s apartheid regime by ostracising their national rugby team.
The time for apologies, of course, had long gone and nobody can point a finger at Lapasset in that respect. When he rose to prominence as secretary general of the French Rugby Federation in 1991, Mandela was enjoying his first year of freedom.
For all his saintly quality, he would have found it hard to suppress a wry smile at mention of “the rugby family”. Where were they for most of the 27 years of Mandela’s incarceration – the British, the Irish, the French, the New Zealanders?
What were they doing? Busy maintaining links with a regime which had been outlawed from the Olympic movement for 28 years from 1964 and from the football World Cup, that’s what they were doing.
The Lions toured as normal in 1968, again six years later and again six years after that. Anyone daring to ask the Establishment whether they had thought about not going was liable to be condemned as, at best a trouble-maker, at worst a communist.
And then there was, perhaps, the most shameful episode of all, the clandestine operation which led to ten Welsh players and, worse still, a number of their Union’s senior officials flying out in defiance of their own Union to help the South African Rugby Board celebrate their centenary.
During that late summer of 1989, Mandela was recovering from tuberculosis at a prison near Paarl, having just completed his 26th year behind bars. Back in Wales, some of the rugby family finalising plans for a trip to South Africa were hardly motivated by a desire to do their bit for the prisoner who had been moved from Robben Island a few years earlier.
The players were too busy preparing an escape of a very different kind, from the Welsh team’s summer training camp at Aberaeron to Heathrow so they could sneak off to Johannesburg without anyone noticing until they were airborne.
Other players from other countries also took their place in a World XV.
Pierre Barbezier, of France, was the captain, the distinguished Australian Bob Templeton the coach and Willie John McBride, an old friend of apartheid South Africa, the manager.
The players, of course, were paid, not that any told the inquiry as much.
At least one, Mark Ring, was honest enough to admit that he had got £35,000 for his trouble, a fact which had he revealed at the time would have exposed him to an automatic life-ban under the archaic amateur laws in force until August 1995. That would explain why at least one of the Welsh contingent, the then Lions’ Test scrum-half Robert Jones, changed his mind at the 11th hour and went shortly after WRU secretary David East had issued a statement saying that Jones had told him he would be staying at home.
The scandal provoked a furore which prompted the Welsh Rugby Union to order an inquiry conducted by an independent chairman, Vernon Pugh QC. Most inquiries of that kind ended up under the boardroom carpet and the WRU did their best to consign Pugh’s report to the same fate.
Its relatively explosive content amounted to a damning indictment of senior WRU officials with the honourable exception of the new secretary, David East, the former chief constable of South Wales singled out in the report as the only man “entirely truthful in his evidence”. East, betrayed by his own Union and the flagrant breach of their policy that no Welsh players join the tour, resigned during a general committee meeting and never came back.
The late RH (Rhys) Williams, then WRU president-elect, went on the all-expenses paid trip after saying he would not be going, then resigned on his return.
When the clubs finally became aware of the whole grubby business in 1993, they threw the general committee out and installed Pugh as chairman, a position which led to his becoming a global figure in charge of the IRB.
On reflection, perhaps it was just as well that Lapasset chose to let sleeping dogs lie rather than apologise for their behaviour.
As someone once said: “You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family.”
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