After the inauguration of South Africa in 1993 and its introduction to the international game of rugby, Francois Pienaar played a pinnacle role in the development of the sport and shock World Cup success just three years later.
A born leader, he was appointed captain for his first international appearance and he maintained this role in all of the 29 games played for his country.
With Pienaar at the helm, the Springboks enjoyed 15 successive Test victories between 1994 – 1995, and he is widely recognised as one of the most inspirational captains in the history of the game.
During 1995, he was awarded Rugby Personality of the Year in Britain, whilst South Africa named him Newsmaker of the Year. Nine years later, his home country would also vote him 50th in a poll naming the top 100 South Africans.
He retired from the game in 1996 and, in 2000, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hertfordshire.
The Early Years
Jacobus Francois Pienaar was born into a working class Afrikaner family in Vereeniging in Gauteng, South Africa on 2 January 1969.
Demonstrating natural leadership skills and a keen enthusiasm for a variety of sports, he was awarded an athletics scholarship at the Rand Afrikaner University in Johannesberg, where he undertook a Law degree upon completion of schooling.
It was rugby which really captured his attention though and he was a regular spectator at local Transvaal rugby matches during his university years. Spending evenings watching their training sessions and learning new skills, little did he know that he would debut for the side in 1989. He would go on to make 100 appearances for Transvaal as a flanker, captaining the team on 89 occasions and enjoying victories in the Currie Cup in 1993 and 1994, the Lion Cup, the Super 10 and the Night Series.
The South African Rugby Football Union was formed in 1992 and the team, omitting Pienaar from selection at this stage, joined their new Southern Hemisphere rivals, Australia and New Zealand, in a Test match to mark the occasion.
Pienaar was given the opportunity to represent his country in the following year and he made his first appearance for the Springboks.
A natural leader
After four wins with the national side, and the retirement of captain Naas Botha, South African coach Ian McIntosh named newcomer Pienaar as the player to fill this prestigious position.
In the first two games against France, they drew one and lost one and in the following Test, they lost two out of the three games played in Sydney. At the end of the season, Pienaar led the team to two victories against the Argentinians and, in 1992, his instrumental role in the development of the South African squad earned him Captain of the Year, awarded by the Australian International Rugby Review.
Pienaar continued to impress in the national team too, with Transvaal retaining the Currie Cup in 1994 and, in 1995, the country looked forward to its first World Cup despite entering the tournament as the underdog.
In an astonishing display of rugby, the country only ranked ninth in the world at the time, enjoyed victories against Australia, Romania, Canada, Western Samoa and France before meeting the mighty All Blacks for the World Cup final. However, with a Joel Stranksy drop goal in extra time, the home side enjoyed a 15-12 victory and a stunned 60,000 strong home crowd watched an injured Pieannar lift the famous trophy at Ellis Park Stadium
Dressed in a replica of the captain’s No 6 playing shirt, Nelson Mandela presented the trophy to Pienaar on 24th June. Mandela would later become the godfather to his son.
The following week, a proud Pienaar undertook a strike with his Transvaal teammates, urging his employers to provide better pay and company benefits. Despite being initially sacked, his requests were eventually met and he re-joined the team shortly after.
That month, he would also play an integral role in bringing the South African game into the professional arena. It was another significant and monumental victory for Pienaar.
What happened next
Pienaar left the international game following comments by the then coach Andre Markgraaff, that he had faked an injury as South Africa hosted the Tri Nations. After being left out of the South African side following the controversial decision, which would later be overturned by the South African Rugby Football Union, Pienaar never played for his country again.
He moved to England shortly after, becoming a player/ coach for London club, The Saracens. Under his direction, the club enjoyed a success in the Tetley’s Bitter Cup and finished the season in second place, thus earning their qualification into the European Cup. It was an achievement that Pienaar repeated in the following two seasons, when the club finished in third and fourth places. After his success on the field, he became Chief Executive Officer of Saracens in 2001 but, after a string of defeats, left two years later.
In 2002, he returned to South Africa and later became Chief Executive Officer of the Rugby World Cup Bid Committee, hoping to bring the 2011 World Cup tournament to South Africa for the first time since their spectacular victory. The privilege was eventually awarded to New Zealand.
His best selling autobiography ‘Rainbow Warrior’ was released in 1999.
Pienaar remains in South Africa where he lives in Cape Town with his wife and two sons. He can occasionally be found on British soil as a widely respected commentator for the international game.