Alan Hubbard

Although I am a Londoner born and bred, please do not think I am being unpatriotic when I say I could not be more delighted that South Africa have won the Rugby World Cup.

Well, I suppose I could have been a tad happier had England been victorious, but in essence what transpired in Yokohama last weekend was one of those momentous occasions when a sporting happening transcended sport itself.

How wonderful that so much joy has enveloped such a troubled country, with a victory that brings both unity and hope.

It was the final realisation of one man's dream of social cohesion; that man being Nelson Mandela, of course. One nation, one team.

And what a wonderful ambassador for sport and his country is the South African captain Siya Kolisi.

His inspirational backstory is one of which hit movies are made and surely will be in this case. Like Mandela, his hero, and Martin Luther King he also had a dream. But his was not of glory or emancipation, but where his next meal would be coming from when he was a kid.

Before the final, the South Africans had been labelled a bunch of muscular bully-boys, but there was certainly no evidence of this in the way their game flowed last Saturday, while England's merely ebbed.

Siya Kolisi makes history as sport brings a nation together once more ©Getty Images
Siya Kolisi makes history as sport brings a nation together once more ©Getty Images

Rugby in South Africa was once the sole enclave of the white man. "No black bums in the scrum!" was the cry of one South African minister. Blacks were not allowed to play, or even watch in those dark years of apartheid.

How times have changed. When I first visited South Africa in the seventies, my contacts book strangely disappeared from my bag when my hotel room was raided by what I was told later were tourist police re-rating the rooms. This was the time when, while I was interviewing the head of a black sports federation, I was instructed that he was not allowed to sit down in the presence of a white man, nor could I offer him a drink. It makes me shudder to think of that even now.

But that was the past. We must never forget that sport was a principal factor in putting a sledgehammer through the abomination that was apartheid and Saturday's totemic final was an apt reminder.

As Kolisi, the first black skipper in the country's history, hoisted the glistening Webb Ellis trophy we knew something had changed for the good and hopefully forever.

When Mandela celebrated with Francois Pienaar at Ellis Park in Johannesburg in 1995, there was one black player in the Springbok team. When John Smit did the same in Paris in 2007, linking arms with Thabo Mbeki, who used to walk six miles to school in bare feet and six miles back, there were two.

In Yokohama, South Africa had been led to glory by a kid from the townships who was born with nothing, whose parents were too young and too poor to raise him and so entrusted him to his grandmother. A rugby obsessive who played without kit in bare feet and boxer shorts, whose mother died when he was 15 and whose grandmother died in his arms a few months later.

But there was history being made by Japan, too. Many of its citizens had never seen a rugby match before.

That wonderful moment in 1995 when Nelson Mandela handed the Rugby World Cup trophy to Springbok captain François Pienaar ©Getty Images
That wonderful moment in 1995 when Nelson Mandela handed the Rugby World Cup trophy to Springbok captain François Pienaar ©Getty Images

No doubt that the land of fragrant cherry blossom is one of the world's most progressive sporting nations. The Olympic Games staged there in 1964 was my first major overseas sporting assignment and the first of the dozen Summer Olympics I've covered subsequently.

As I have said here before, they were the last of what the Olympics were supposed to be about, with a refreshing absence of overt commercialism or major controversy; no rows, rifts or recriminations. And, as far as we could tell, drugs.

Since then, Japan has successfully hosted World Athletics Championships, hosted a football World Cup, Formula 1 Grand Prix, world title fights and a number of other regional sporting spectaculars.

It has become one of the most influential voices in the world of sport.

I am told that in Japan there is now unprecedented excitement as its second Olympic Games approach. Even though these are still several months away, in Tokyo itself next year's Games already have a higher profile than Rugby World Cup. There is a feeling that Tokyo 2020 will not only match, but exceed the mania that erupted around London 2012 during our Olympic Games. 

There is little doubt that Japan has a deep fascination for the Olympics. At the Japan Olympic Museum, in the shadow of the breathtakingly beautiful new Olympic stadium built in the centre of the city, there is an exhibition of the country's history with the Olympic Movement.

Tokyo would have staged the Olympics in 1940, but the Japanese withdrew their support because they were preoccupied with the costs of the 1937 invasion of China. Instead, the Olympics were awarded to Helsinki before being cancelled because of the outbreak of World War II.

So, when Tokyo became the first Asian city to hold the Games in 1964, it was as a symbol of Japan's rehabilitation.

They were recovering from atrocities committed in China, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the horrors inflicted on captured enemy troops as testified by my own late father-in-law - who was a prisoner-of-war for some four years in Changi - and later the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What the world has witnessed in Japan these past weeks indicates that Tokyo 2020 will be in safe hands and that the rainbow now hovering over South Africa since the stormy days of apartheid bodes well for the future of that nation.

If there really is an "Up There" afterlife, then a certain Mr Mandela will be smiling benignly and reminding us that in his own immortal words, sport really does have has the power to change the world.