Ahead of his second Rugby World Cup as a referee, Jaco Peyper, recalls witnessing Rugby World Cup 1995 in South Africa as a 15-year-old, the atmosphere, the action and how a sport changed a nation.
Watch Episode 3: Jaco Peyper
The Day That Changed South Africa
For me, rugby is a way of life.
I was born in the Free State right slap bang in the middle of South Africa, and rugby played a huge part in my childhood because it was part of the culture there.
I was a keen player but not a great one and I got a few injuries along the way which put a stop to my playing career. Essentially, I had to find other ways to stay involved in the game I loved.
My first taste of refereeing came while I was studying at The University of Free State. Having done a few coaching sessions, I found myself refereeing some of the local school games on Thursday afternoons. I got paid a few bucks by the older teachers at the school to cover their games for them and started earning pocket money for a few beers over the weekend. Refereeing was never something I planned; it was something I more or less fell into.
Refereeing came quite naturally to me, so opportunities to officiate high profile games soon came knocking. I progressed fairly quickly in the sport and was lucky enough to referee some Currie Cup matches and eventually chosen for Rugby World Cup 2015.
Being selected for Rugby World Cup is obviously the pinnacle of any referee’s career. You work a full cycle of four years to be selected the same way that players strive to be picked or coaches are appointed.
”Growing up in isolation in South Africa we knew what Rugby World Cup was, but we had no exposure to it.
It was like that until the arrival of Rugby World Cup in our country in 1995.
It was such a massive event to me as a 15-year-old getting to go to the stadiums, seeing the teams, getting autographs and just being able to experience the spirit of Rugby World Cup.
Japan and New Zealand was the first game I attended at Rugby World Cup 1995. Me and my mates made a huge Japanese flag. I had taken one of my Mum’s sheets (which she didn’t know about) and painted a big red dot in the middle. The flag didn’t bring any luck as Japan got thumped that day by New Zealand.
It shows how far Japan have come as a rugby nation that they defeated South Africa at the last Rugby World Cup. They will be amazing hosts this time around.
For me, the day that changed our nation forever was South Africa’s opening game against Australia in 1995. A group of us went around to a mate’s place to watch it. Everyone in the country seemed to be sitting at their TV sets full of aspiration and anticipation. As the game grew older, the South African team seemed to grow stronger.
I remember the atmosphere in school the day after the win against Australia. You could feel that something had changed. We had so many political challenges in our country’s history that had caused a rift in society, but it was as though rugby was beginning to bridge that divide and start the healing process for us as a nation.
On the streets, you would have seen different cultures and ethnic groups drinking together singing ‘Shosholoza’, a traditional miner’s song. That’s the moment when people started working together in our country or it certainly felt like that to me.
There had been plenty of talk and debate about the change we needed and there were measures put in place to bring about positive change but, for me, that was the day when people began to actually live the change.
Prior to Rugby World Cup 1995, rightly or wrongly, the “Springboks” name had a negative connotation. It was the Afrikaners main sport and therefore had an association with apartheid. Then, as if out of nowhere, this South Africa squad was uniting a divided nation.
A player like Chester Williams personified that unification as the first player of ethnic colour to play for that South Africa team post isolation. Within the team he was an equal, part of a collective effort to win the tournament for fans, families and friends of all colours and creeds.
The captain, Francois Pienaar, is due a great amount of credit in how he brought the team with him. They were by no means favourites going into the tournament, expectations were low, but his belief and passion ran through the whole squad.
I’ll never forget the final. Two elements stood out for me…
The first was the extra time and how incredibly intense it was, both teams throwing everything they had at each other. The second was the emotion and pride that accompanied the trophy presentation. I can still clearly see Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandela on the podium holding the Webb Ellis Cup.
It has been a few years since Nelson’s passing, but any time he is spoken of I picture him in the number six green jersey standing next to Pienaar. It was a massive moment in our country’s history. Nelson was part of the South Africa team.
”If Nelson had turned his back on the team, we would be looking at a different South Africa today.
You follow the game keenly over the years and there are so many players that personify Rugby World Cup. You don’t want to pick out just one player, but I was a huge fan of South Africa’s Joost van der Westhuizen.
As a smaller player playing at number nine, you’re not supposed to tackle all the big blokes, but he used to get right in front of some of the big steam rollers like Jonah Lomu. Defensively, he was the type of player that was always there to make the last gasp tackle and attacking he always managed to find a way through a hole. He led through his actions – never giving up. It was inspiring to witness that as a young man and made me want to succeed at the highest level of my profession.
”To be selected as a Rugby World Cup referee is a huge thrill, it’s the pinnacle.
One day, before the last Rugby World Cup, I was busy at work and I started to get messages from my mates saying “Congratulations! You got selected!”. It was only then I realised I had actually missed four calls from World Rugby, and I listened to the voicemail saying I had been picked as a referee for the 2015 tournament in England. When I realised what was happening, I was struck with joy and jubilation. I called my folks, my partner, and anyone who helped me along the way to share the moment with them.
After the initial burst of excitement reality set in and I was like, “Damn! This is a massive responsibility.” And just like that, you’re preparing mentally and physically for the biggest games of your career.
I guess the challenge with being part of high-profile games is you’re going to be in the middle of the picture every time a decision is made. You can’t escape that. Sometimes it’s for the better, and sometimes it’s not which will result in the next few days being quite tough. You could have a great game and put a lot of effort into your performance and be correct in almost every decision, but it takes just one wrong decision to make you the ‘bad guy’.
Criticism as a referee is inevitable, it’s part of the job. I never got into social media because I don’t think it suits my personality. I prefer not to know what millions of people think of my performance on a Monday. I’d rather focus on the official feedback and coaching.
I am very confident in my ability as a referee. You can do as much training and preparation as you like, but great referees are separated from the rest by how they handle the pressure. It’s one thing to prepare physically and know your laws, you just read through the law book a few times and train hard every day. Pressure adds a new dimension.
As referees, we are aware of the influence we can have over a game, and one reality of modern rugby is that players and teams will essentially prepare to play a referee. This is quite understandable. In the same way that no two players are exactly the same, no two referees are exactly the same either.
That’s why we have workshops regularly. We get together and work at getting as close as possible to each other and therefore make more or less the same decision in the majority of circumstances.
I guess it’s the same for a number nine and 10 playing together. The more time they spend together on the pitch, the less they have to say, which allows them to have a better game.
Having said that, each referee will have their own style, and if you want to take the personality out of the referee, then you might as well let a robot referee the game.
I’ve often been asked what constitutes a “good game” for a referee. For me, that is when you contribute to the run of play by meeting two key criteria. Firstly, the players are safe on the field and secondly, the game is fair. If these two are met, I can allow the game to run and contribute to what should be a great spectacle.
I’ve been to Japan to referee Super Rugby and other test matches in the past. They are the perfect hosts and are so welcoming. They’ll definitely put up an exceptional tournament with all the crowds and colour that comes with that.
I have my own ambitions for Rugby World Cup 2019™.
It is easy to say, “I want to referee the final or the semi-final”, that is obviously everyone’s goal. There are 12 referees, so plenty are going to be disappointed if everyone’s goal is to ref the final.
I am truly hoping that my preparation over the last four years will allow me to take opportunities that contribute to the tournament. If I achieve that through my pool stage fixtures, then who knows what will happen in the playoffs.
Whatever happens, we will see the power of Rugby World Cup to lift whole nations.
Here’s to a great tournament in Japan!
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If you enjoyed Jaco’s piece you might like to read Nigel Owens – “Born Into Rugby“
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