Al Charron reflects on memories of South Africa and Mandela

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rugby canada

December 17, 2013 (ISN) – As a week of mourning continues in the Republic of South Africa, Rugby Canada has gotten players involved during the key 1995 Rugby World Cup to recount their sporting memories of the country that was being shaped at the time by Nelson Mandela.

Today we hear from Al Charron, Canada’s most capped player, who scored two tries at the 1995 World Cup.

Reflections on the Passing of Nelson Mandela

The recent passing of Nelson Mandela has come with an outpouring of tributes and testimonials for this incredible man and the life he lived. Rightly or wrongly his name for me is inherently linked with my memories of the 1995 RWC which took place of course in South Africa.

The World Cup would not have taken place in South Africa in 1995 of course, if it had not been for the demise of Apartheid but I would also argue that if not for Nelson Mandela the third installment of the Rugby World Cup would not have been the success it was and one could argue further that if not for Mandela the Springboks would not have won the cup. Mandela’s passing opened up a flood of memories from the great time my teammates and I had in South Africa.

Canada, playing in some very colourful jerseys for the tournament, were coming off a high of the previous RWC in 1991 but the IRB did us no favours in welcoming South Africa back into the international fold. Their first foray into competing in a World Cup saw them seeded ninth.

That put Canada, a quarter-finalist in 1991, into the pool with Romania who we narrowly beat in pool play in 1991, the previous World cup champions Australia, and the home country (and eventual) 1995 RWC champions, South Africa…..thanks! The pool of death as it was called in Soccer World Cups and thus dubbed for our pool -was certainly fitting for us.

We crushed Romania by a large margin (34-3) and I believe it was by a higher margin than the Boks (SA 21 Romania 8). Against Australia we ran them tougher than I am sure they expected in a 27-11 loss. No points for a close loss but there is some pride in how we gave Australia a run for their money. We played so well that the All Blacks management called our hotel to compliment and congratulate us in a hard fought loss to their rivals.

We entered the South African match with the knowledge that for any hope to advance further in the RWC we would have to beat the Springboks on home soil. The game against the Springboks was intense and one of the hardest and most violent ones I have ever played in and that would be my claim even before the famous brawl that took place near the end of the match.

It was always going to be a daunting task, but made further more difficult by the fact we were suffering some injuries. As a result Glen Ennis and I, traditionally back row players, were being bundled into the second row. It was to be my third start in as many games in a different position having played flanker and # 8 against Romania and Australia respectively.

Not an ideal situation for Canada to have both of us in the engine room for this match. We ended up losing 20-0 with the Boks scoring two push over tries. If you take away one or two of those tries with a viable scrummaging second row in there and add the fact we gave up makeable Gareth Rees shots at goal to try to score a try late in the proceedings and the match against the eventual champions was much closer than even that score line indicates. Not to mention we played the last part of the game one man short as Gareth Rees and Rod Snow were red carded along with Springbok hooker Andy Dalton.

I ended up playing my fourth position of prop in the non contested scrums. Points for anyone who can name the Springbok player who hooked in those uncontested scrums? (hint he was the first player to lift the cup after their win in the final and Mandela famously wore his Springbok #6 jersey!).

There are many memories from my time there and it certainly opened my eyes up to many different things in person, that you might not realize by watching TV.

Without question the country was different than any other I had visited. Beautiful, exotic, exciting and friendly. Yes there was an undercurrent of strife, only natural given its past but certainly my recollections were of how well we were treated by all South Africans.

All three of our games were in Port Elizabeth and we were the only country to play all our pool matches in one location. The great people of Port Elizabeth adopted us as their own and I dare say they in some cases especially the black population were even pulling for us against their homeland.

That feeling of rooting against the ‘whites’ would be changed to a large degree by Mandela’s actions and words in rallying the disenchanted to pull for their countrymen one and all as they took on the world. It would be horribly inaccurate to say everyone from South Africa got behind the Boks, but without Mandela championing their cause the situation would have been much different. The final showed itself as the stadium crowd , the country got behind the Boks and I think drove them on to beat the favourites All Blacks from New Zealand.

I have had the pleasure of playing in four Rugby World Cups and attending a fifth as part of the management team, but South Africa was the one where you really felt you were indeed playing in the 3rd biggest sporting event in the world. Fabulously organised, well attended, from top to bottom, I loved it! Did South Africa still have problems on many levels? Without question we were not blind, but it was a major transitional period for the country. South Africa was again opening the doors of its country for people from all over to visit and explore- the Rugby World Cup was its showcase to the world. It was something not possible if not for Nelson Mandela. He can take credit for many things, but his deep level of forgiveness for the sake of reconciliation of the country he loved is deeply profound. His release from prison was a huge step, his support of the rugby team with the eyes of the world watching was impactful.

When I think South Africa – without question I think Rugby World Cup 1995 and Nelson Mandela. And that was the case in reverse order when I read about his death on Twitter last week and was called by three reporters – in fairly short order about my thoughts and feelings on what it meant to me.

I suspect my thoughts and memories of Rugby World Cup, South Africa and the great man Mandela will forever be still the same 20 years from now as they are today and were in 1995. Linked.

Al Charron Fast Facts

Height 6′ 5″

Weight 270 lbs

Hometown: Ottawa, ON

Tests: 76

Points: 44 (9 tries including one 4 pt try.)

Debut 1990 vs Argentina at Burnaby Lake

Final match 2003 vs Tonga in Wollongong

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