Friday 20 July 2018

Matt Damon and me

John Meagher talks to the man who inspired box office smash 'Invictus'

John Meagher

John Meagher

Francois Pienaar does not look like someone who cries in the cinema. Standing 6'3", weighing 17 stone and displaying a body familiar with workouts, the former South African rugby hero cuts an imposing figure. But appearances can be deceptive.

"I knew the scene was coming, but when I saw it, it brought it all back to me and I wept," he says. "I couldn't stop." Pienaar is talking about Invictus, the Clint Eastwood film centred around his captaincy of the South Africa side that won an emotional, Nelson Mandela-inspired World Cup in 1995, and specifically the scene where Matt Damon, playing him, visits Mandela's prison cell at Robben Island.

"The film captures exactly what happened," he says. "A tour of the prison was arranged for the team in the run up to the World Cup and I was the last in. I remember thinking how small the cell was. I stretched my arms out, like Matt does in the film, and I could almost touch the walls on either side.

"And I thought about this extraordinary man, Madiba [as Mandela is respectfully known by many South Africans], and all the years he was incarcerated here and how forgiving he was when he was released. He did not hate. It was inspiring."

Invictus has brought to a worldwide audience a real-life sporting tale with a feel-good message. "It's true -- winning the World Cup on home turf helped bring together an entire country at that moment," Pienaar says.

"Previously, the rugby team had almost no connection with the black population or them with it. Rugby was seen as a white, Afrikaner game and black people would usually support whoever we were playing against. But thanks to Madiba's very public support for us, an entire country rallied to the cause."

Pienaar -- in Dublin to help Guinness market their rugby fan website, Area 22 -- is a huge figure back home, but Invictus has boosted awareness among those unfamiliar with rugby.

"It is a strange feeling knowing that a lot of the people who have seen the film won't even know what I look like," says the 43-year-old.

Damon has been nominated for a best supporting Oscar for his portrayal. "I think Matt did a great job," Pienaar says. "He got the accent spot-on and, believe me, it is not easy to master a South African accent.

"I liked him very much -- he was a real gentleman and took the role very seriously. He wanted to get it right and you could see how much he worked at the detail."

Although he enjoyed the film, Pienaar finds certain aspects hard to swallow, particularly the implication that the South African side were considered no-hopers going into the tournament.

"I accept that they needed dramatic tension and had to bend the facts a little, but we were a bloody good side, and definitely in with a chance of winning the cup.

'The other thing they didn't get quite right were the dressing room scenes." He has a mischievous look in his eye. "Let's just say I used to be a lot more aggressive than Matt was but I suppose they had to be careful with the language they used."

The film is especially good at showing the burgeoning relationship between Pienaar and Mandela, played impeccably by Morgan Freeman. "I still see him every so often," he says. "We had tea together back in November." Mandela is godfather to one of Pienaar's sons.

Funny and full of anecdotes, Pienaar is a good conversationalist. But he does get somewhat irate when asked about ongoing problems in South Africa, not least its reputation for violence.

"It's not perfect, but then what country is? South Africa has come a long way in 20 years. Look at all the international tournaments we have hosted successfully -- and this summer when we get the football World Cup.

"Are there problems? Of course, there are. Are there tensions between the colours? Yes, sometimes, but the situation is so much better than it was and that is the image we would like the rest of the world to see. You have to remember that South Africa, post-apartheid, is still a very young country."

Since retiring, Pienaar has carved out a career in banking, but his real interest is the charity Make A Difference, which aspires to identify academically talented black children and fund their education in the best schools.

Pienaar retired from rugby 10 years ago, but he misses it badly, particularly when spending time with current professionals. All morning he has been doing the promotional rounds with one of Ireland's most gifted talents, Jamie Heaslip.

"Just being around Jamie makes me long to be back playing rugby," he says. "It is very hard to adjust to normal life once you quit. You miss that adrenaline rush so much. There's nothing quite like that feeling. Invictus brought back the emotion of that World Cup Final, but what I would give to experience it again. Words fail me."

Irish Independent

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