Joel Stransky: I'd like to think there's a little more to me than one drop kick
Springbok legend Joel Stransky is no stranger to determination, and these days you'll find him crushing it in epic swims and bike rides. Just please don't mention That Kick
Three seconds - that's all it took from the time the ball left Joel Stransky's boot until it whistled between the rugby posts. In those three seconds, Stransky went from Springbok player to Springbok legend and earned the adulation of a nation. His fairy-tale drop goal in the dying minutes of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final sealed SA's win against the all-powerful All Blacks and played a role in inspiring unity in a divided country - even if it was just for a moment.
I can see Stransky reading the last sentence and shaking his head and saying, "We were just a bunch of young rugger players wanting to do the best we could and it was just a kick." But it wasn't just a kick, it was a metaphor: if the little-team-that-could was able to slay the Goliath of world rugby, then perhaps SA, the little-country-that-could, would be able to slay the Goliath of apartheid and emerge as a reconciled nation.
If you don't believe me about the magic of that goosebump moment that sparked feverish celebrations throughout the Rainbow Nation, ask Clint Eastwood, whose movie Invictus Hollywoodised the match and immortalised Stransky and That Kick. The role of Stransky was played by Eastwood's son, Scott.
That Kick has followed Stransky around for a quarter of a century and, in a way, has come to define him. The same way "disgraced" was attached to Hansie Cronje's name after the 1999 cricket match-fixing scandal, "That Kick" became Stransky's tag.
A story about Stransky taking a midnight swim in Wellington Harbour to celebrate SA's shock win over the All Blacks in September declares: "Stransky kicked the winning drop goal in extra time in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final"; and a story last month about his charity endeavours notes: "Stransky is famous for kicking the winning drop goal to help SA win the 1995 RWC, but on Wednesday he inspired a pink revolution at the Absa Cape Epic."
In a recent business segment on radio, talk-show host Bruce Whitfield interviewed Stransky and introduced him: "Most South Africans will forever and a day remember that winning drop goal ."
LIFE BEFORE THAT KICK
Stransky grew up in Cape Town and went to Rondebosch Boys' High. He left the Cape for KwaZulu-Natal, where he attended Maritzburg College. It was here than he earned a reputation as a complete flyhalf: he had brains and ball skills and never seemed to be in a hurry. Stransky kicked like a demon and was able to control a match with his boot.
After matric, in 1987, he played his debut season of first-class rugby for Northern Transvaal before switching to Natal, where he was part of the 1990 team that clinched the Currie Cup for the first time. He scored some sensational tries during that campaign. He was called up to the national side in 1993, dotting down a remarkable intercept try against the Wallabies. He was devastatingly effective and had a distinguished provincial and national career.
I meet him in Cape Town on the eve of the 56km Two Oceans ultra-marathon, which he has entered.
"It will be a suffer fest," he says.
No doubt he will take the race in his stride. It's the third of five back-to-back endurance challenges he's doing to raise awareness for Vision 2020, an initiative that is testing the eyes of disadvantaged children and supplying glasses where necessary.
The other events are the Cape Epic and Iron Man, both of which he has already completed, the Freedom Swim (the 7.5km crossing from Robben Island to Blouberg), and the Comrades Marathon.
Each one is a physical beast. Ordinary people may put one of them on their bucket list and are heroic if they manage to cross it off in their lifetime. But all of them in one go? That's superhuman.
At 51, Stransky is now in the, er, second phase of his sporting life and has found a new passion. "In life you need a purpose. Something that drives you," he says. "For me it's mountain biking. I like to race hard and properly."
A SUCKER FOR SUFFERING
Ten years ago, he completed his maiden Cape Epic, a gruelling eight-day mountain-bike race, and joined a legion of former rugby players to swap rucks for rocks, spin passes for mountain passes and drop kicks for drop-offs.
Rugby players are drawn to mountain biking like, well, South Africans to rugby. The cream of South African rugby history - people who could give the current Boks a scrum for their money, including Butch James, Marius Hurter, John Smit, Victor Matfield, Corné Krige, Tiaan Strauss, Chester Williams, Stefan Terblanche and Breyton Paulse - are now getting their thrills on two wheels.
Stransky is a podium contender and has nine coveted Epic finisher T-shirts (including third place in the Grand Masters category last year) and road cycling's Holy Grail; a Cape Town Cycle Tour sub-three, to go with his World Cup medal and 22 Bok caps.
"Rugby training has an element of suffering - and cycling is all about suffering and digging deep," he says, adding that cycling is tougher than rugby from an endurance point of view, but not from a contact point of view - unless you get a mouthful of gravel.
As a professional rugby player, Stransky faced some of the biggest brutes ever to pull on rugby boots, but his worst sports injury came while on the bike - or, more accurately, from falling off the bike.
His 2017 Epic ended after just a few kilometres when he misjudged a jump and went over his handlebars. When he emerged from the dirt, he looked like he'd gone seven rounds with Mike Tyson (or three rounds with Grace Mugabe). He'd broken some ribs and punctured a lung, and a plastic surgeon spent two-and-a-half hours stitching him back together.
The video went viral and he went from Joel "That Kick" to Joel "That Crash" to Joel "That Kick who had That Crash".
After the 1995 World Cup, Stransky went to England to join Leicester Tigers. He played three seasons for the club, scoring over 200 premiership points before a knee injury ended that career. But That Crash didn't end his cycling career. Two weeks later he was back on his bike. Two months after that he won the Masters category in a stage race. Two years later, The Crash has been forgotten, but 24 years after the World Cup, people remember That Kick like it was yesterday.
Stransky doesn't even roll his eyes when I ask if he ever gets tired of being asked about it.
THEY WON, AND THEN THEY MOVED ON
"I do laugh a little bit about it," he says. "It's the one thing that stands out above all else. I know it's considered the defining moment of my career but I would like to think there was a little bit more to me than one drop kick."
He doesn't want to be remembered as a one-kick wonder. Fair enough: he didn't just play one match; he played 250 first-class games and has fond memories of many of them.
"I don't look back on that kick and think about how it defines me. I'm not someone who dwells on the past. I was fortunate enough to be part of a wonderful rugby team that won the World Cup and we celebrated, but after that I set new goals."
He doesn't mean drop goals, but life, family, business and philanthropic goals. He's a rugby commentator for SuperSport, and has achieved success in the corporate world. Seven years ago he stretched his entrepreneurial muscles and, with two partners, founded the Pivotal Group, a company that has pioneered voice biometrics. He launched the LumaHawk Foundation, which supports the educational and sporting needs of disadvantaged children.
He is also happily married to Karen and proud of his children, 22-year-old Sabrina and 18-year-old Matthew, who, when they were growing up, were always startled when people wanted their dad's autograph.
AN IMPORTANT PART OF HISTORY
He never turns down a request for an autograph.
"A whole lot of my Springbok teammates were at dinner one night and some children approached one of the players, someone who was hugely iconic, and asked him for his signature. He told them to sod off. I could see the children's disappointment and I thought, well, that's never going to be me. From that moment whenever anybody - especially children - asks me for a signature, I treat it like an unbelievable honour."
Stransky may not be the greatest rugby player the country has ever produced, but That Kick made him, arguably, one of the most famous Springboks ever - boys were named after him in 1995 and there's a Joel Stransky Crescent in Vredenburg, Western Cape.
It changed his life and kicked open doors for him.
"It changed my life but also the life of every oke in that squad. We became part of something that was much bigger than anyone dreamt of; we put our names in the annals of history, not just rugby history."
After the ball left his boot, he turned on his heel and it was only the crowd's roar that alerted him that the ball was on target. Does he ever wonder what would have happened if the ball had made like #MyFokMaralize and smacked into a rugby pole instead?
"I never think about that," he says, and then thinks about that.
"Well, it would have been really easy. We would have received the kick-off from a lot closer. They would have kicked out from the 22. I would have caught the ball, thrown a dummy, sidestepped, beaten a couple of defenders and scored under the poles . and then kicked the conversion. I mean, how hard can it be?" He laughs.
He says if it hadn't gone over, he would have still been ambitious and achieved other goals. "I'd like to think that my life wouldn't have been all that different. But I don't play the 'What If?' game. We trained hard, we worked hard and we practised drop goals. I struck it well and the reality is that it went over."
Still, if someone had told Stransky in 1995 that one day Clint Eastwood would make a Hollywood blockbuster about the Springbok rugby team, he would have thought they were smoking their socks.
The Springboks won the World Cup but they also gave Nelson Mandela a platform around which to unite a country. Says Stransky, that was much more important than winning itself.
In other words, the story of the 1995 World Cup is not a rugby story; it's a Mandela story, but it has one helluva kick.
ON GIVING BACK
Stransky’s LumoHawk Foundation has partnered with the Anna Foundation as part of Vision 2020 to test poor children’s eyesight.
“It is estimated that around 20% of children in SA have eye problems, which can have a huge impact on a child’s education,” says Stransky. “The LumoHawk Foundation’s focus has always been around education and Vision 2020 will play a major role in ensuring that more of our future leaders receive a full education and are able to live up to their dreams."
ON THIS YEAR'S WORLD CUP
“It’s very open and will be the toughest World Cup to win,” says Stransky. “We have a difficult draw and if we lose the opening game against the All Blacks it will be a rough road to the final. Can we win it? Yes, there’s no doubt we can. We have loads of talent, endeavour and ambition and we have a coach who is very strategic."
"Have we got the talent? Yes, we do. Will they come together on the day with the right confidence and a game plan that is able to beat the big sides? I’m not 100% sure right now."