Francois Pienaar is best known as the man who unified a nation.
On June 24, 1995, in Johannesburg, he led South Africa to victory over New Zealand to win the Rugby World Cup. After receiving the Webb Ellis Trophy from Nelson Mandela, who was wearing a Springbok jersey with Piennar’s No. 6 on the back, the “Rainbow Warrior” said, “We didn’t have the support of 63,000 South Africans today. We had the support of 42 million South Africans.”
Having won 29 caps he was controversially replaced as Springbok captain in 1996 and left for England, where he became player-coach with the Saracens club.
Last week he was in Tokyo to announce that the Saracens would be playing two games — against Suntory and an Invitation XV — at the end of August in Tokyo as part of their buildup for next season’s Zurich Premiership League campaign.
In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times, Pienaar talks about the tour to Japan, the future of the game and the relationship between sports and politics.
Japan Times: How much do you know about Suntory?
I watched the semifinal of the National Championship when they beat Toyota, which was a humdinger, and the Kobe Steel final and I was very impressed. If this is the standard then we have a big game.
We want to establish this as a yearly event and grow it, but we have to be realistic and put in a good marketing push to make it a really good year-in event.
Presumably the tour came about as a result of Kenny Iwabuchi being on the Saracens’ books. There are those that will say that, like certain soccer teams, Saracens signed a Japanese player for the off-field profits such as Sky Television coverage and shirt sales. Was that the reason he was signed or did you hope that by training with the likes of Tim Horan and Thomas Castaignede you could improve him as a player?
I think there is truth in both but our objective was that he could add value to our squad. He is a multi-talented player and one that we thought we could improve. He can play flyhalf and wing and is a healthy addition to our squad.
But let’s not fool each other. He also had the link here and without him we would probably not be coming here.
Having said that, a tour here fits in much better than a tour to the Southern Hemisphere. We want a strong pre-season tournament and if that increases shirt sales, fair enough. After all, this is a business.
He hasn’t had a lot of playing time though. Is that likely to change as we approach the buildup to the 2003 World Cup?
He hasn’t because the conditions change quite a bit. He is a running flyhalf and his weakness is kicking — both tactically and at goal.
So this season we are going to look at playing him at scrumhalf, because of his build.
As far as the World Cup is concerned, we are bound by IRB regulation 18 to release him for international games. And of course we will. I want all my players to play for their countries because it is the best thing out. It is unbelievable.
Having said that, the structure in the Northern Hemisphere is fundamentally flawed. We shouldn’t be put in a situation where club-country clashes come about. There needs to be a global season so there is no conflict between clubs and countries.
Having been in professional rugby since the onset, do you have any advice as to how Japanese rugby should proceed?
I think it would be wrong for me to give any specific advice as I do not know the whole structure.
But you have to find harmony. You need to sit around a table and thrash out ideas about the future. It is important for rugby in Japan that the national team does well.
You need competitive games. The two games I saw were great and that is great marketing. Rugby is part of the entertainment industry and you need to ask your customers what they want. You have to give people something that will bring them into stadiums and give them a bloody good time. Otherwise you will only have a small traditional pool that will watch the game.
People want competition and one-sided games only cause problems. Why would people go? You need theater. You need drama. You need high-tension, skillful games that go down to the wire.
Japan has in recent years, like every rugby-playing nation, recruited foreigners to play for the national team. What are your views on players playing for their adopted country?
I think it is bloody difficult. If I am a player and could get the opportunity to play international rugby, I would want it because it is awesome. Would I play less because it is not my real country? No, I can’t believe that. So if the team is better for it I think it is a good thing.
The problem comes when such a player doesn’t perform for his adopted country. I think if a country has looked after a player, and he has given something to the country, then the player will give his all and play with as much passion as anyone.
The success of the Springboks in 1995 showed that sport could influence politics and social thinking. Yet there are those that think politics should influence sports. What are your views on the quota system introduced to South African rugby, that says each team should have a certain number of black players?
People underestimate the power of sport. Because people live and dream it and they live and dream their national team.
Look at what happens in a country when their team wins. The good will, the feeling of the people, everyone in the country becomes world champions. Only war can bring out the same emotions in people.
Politics should be very careful not to interfere in sport. It should support sport — not damage it. Sport gives unity and togetherness at a national level.
As far as the quota system is concerned, I believe in development but it should be carefully structured. It is very dangerous to pick a player on color and not ability.
Let’s take rugby out of it. If South Africa were forced to pick a white player for the soccer team and he did badly and is perceived to have let the team down you actually inflate racism. The same happens in rugby if a player is picked not on merit. You fuel racism and that is very dangerous.
Development should happen at all levels from schools upwards. The first teams should be picked on merit solely but the teams below should have a quota system and fast-track system and the people should be shown that this is what we are doing.
If you do your job properly that player will get to the first team on merit.
I think the national team must be picked on merit as they are playing for the whole country and it is very dangerous if that does not happen.
The game has changed. It used to be a game for players of all sizes. Players are getting bigger and bigger. How do you see the game developing?
Bigger, faster, stronger. The game has so many different techniques. You are always competing for the ball. There are so many differences with rugby league that the two games will never merge.
The only worry is that some young players won’t take up the game because they think they are not big enough. But we are developing players from a younger age because it is a career opportunity now.
I think we have to look at America to see how they develop sportsmen from an early level.
We need to market it well, look at the safety aspects, and provide a Plan B so mothers aren’t worried about letting their boys play the game.
At school, sport teaches you all the things a parent or teacher can’t teach you. To earn respect, teamwork, the gratification of doing well in a team environment. It taught me so many lessons in life. Individuals don’t get that. You need teamwork in everything you do in life.
The game has so much potential. If we can get the global season the game will be huge.
That has to be the future. People want to see the best clubs and provinces from both hemispheres play one another. Imagine the Leicester Tigers playing the ACT Brumbies. What a game that would be.
I also think that the professional game and the amateur game should be run on different lines with an umbilical cord between the two.
What is your immediate future. Will you continue to put up with the cold wet English winters?
I have been in England five years and have learnt so much but my wife has been talking of home. We decided to leave South Africa at a week’s notice so we will most probably decide within a week to move or go back. I’m looking at trying to nurture someone (like Tim Horan) to take over as I have been doing too much. I don’t want to be a jack-of-all trades and master of none.
Do you ever get the urge to pull the boots on and show the young players how it is done?
Always. That will never go away. I probably retired too early. I regret it but you can never get it back. I decided with my wife not to play Golden Oldie rugby because I am too competitive and I will give it my all and if you are not ready for it that is how you can get injured. I have been lucky with injuries and I want to play rugby with my kids.
I have encouraged my boys to play all sports, and luckily they love rugby, because I know what team sports have given me and I would like my boys to have the same.
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Two days after this interview Pienaar announced that he would be stepping down as CEO and head coach of Saracens at the end of the season.
Sources at the club have said that he will still accompany the team on its tour of Japan in August.
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