In June 1995, Ed Morrison was chosen to referee the third Rugby World Cup final. Yet, little did he know, as he stepped out onto Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg just before the game, that he was about to witness one of the most iconic moments in rugby history – Nelson Mandela’s appearance on the pitch to offer the South African team his support.
A: Well I had become interested in what was happening in the case of Mandela – I read books on his life, and became fascinated by him.
But what I had never done was link rugby and Mandela. What became apparent quite quickly was how clever and wise he was in the way he brought white and black together in a rainbow nation.
When Mandela came down the incline and onto the field wearing his cap and rugby shirt that day, I realised “this is something a bit different”. It was almost fantasy really.
What struck me was how small [Mandela] was. But you could not help but feel completely overwhelmed by his stature. His presence was quite extraordinary.
You look back on it and you just think “that was fate”.
Q: How did you feel? Were you nervous about how the crowd would react?
A: Any major sporting occasion is tense. You would not be human if you did not have some ‘fear factor’.
But I remember thinking “I cannot worry too much about Mandela being here, or I will fail.” I had to be a little bit selfish.
The crowd went bonkers. I was gobsmacked – he just smiled knowingly. I remember he had piercing brown eyes. He just looked at me and smiled.
Q: When did you realise you had witnessed a huge moment in history?
A: I’m not sure, but I feel incredibly privileged to have been there. I realised at the time I was in the presence of someone very different – he was unlike anyone I had ever met in my lifetime.
He thanked everyone – it struck me how frail he was, even at that time.
And you would expect a guest at a sporting event to be formally dressed, but there he was in his rugby shirt and cap, just like everyone else.
Q: What do you think will be Mandela’s legacy?
A: There are still massive issues in South Africa, as there are in other countries, but he had a huge influence.
When I left the stadium I saw white faces and black faces celebrating their victory. If you had said to me when I was first refereeing in South Africa that I would one day see that, I would have thought you were on another planet.
He was an extraordinary guy – a one-off.
I just hope South Africa can carry on moving forward. Mandela has given the country a huge opportunity.
Ed Morrison was a referee at international level for 12 years, and adjudicated five matches in South Africa between 1991 and 1999.