winter colours

In the summer of 1997 I began writing full-time for a living. Until then I had worked in a small office in London and had written my books at night. I fell into a routine where, every night, I wrote for four hours in the same office I'd spent the whole day. I longed for a time when I could write rather than work.

When Dark Trade won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in late 1996, I suddenly had the luxury of knowing that my next effort would definitely be published. In the only pragmatic option I've taken in an otherwise haphazard choice of book subjects I settled on my follow-up – knowing that another sports book would allow me to give up my day job. Even if I loved boxing and football much more, rugby was embedded in my past.

As a white South African, especially under apartheid, it was hard not to be immersed in the sport. Rugby gave white South Africans like me, who were often beset with doubt and insecurity, hope that we weren't really terrible people. We might have been reviled by seemingly everyone outside the country, because of apartheid, but our Springbok rugby team was meant to be the best in the world.

Yet by the mid-1970s we were banned from international sport because of apartheid. We blamed the Afrikaners for the woes of the country and the equally painful fact, for us, that we were deprived of Test-match rugby and cricket. By the time I reached university, and resolved to leave the country rather than go into the army, my relationship with rugby had become even more complicated. I thought it represented the Nationalist government which bolstered apartheid at every brutal turn.

And so years later, when South Africa played New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup final at Ellis Park, the day seemed as beautiful to me in London as it was in Johannesburg. The teams walked down the tunnel and out into an almost magical light. Fifteen men were dressed in black, fifteen in green, gold and white. The clamour climbed to a new pitch as Nelson Mandela followed them. Unlike a normal politician, Mandela had dressed for the occasion. The colour of his shirt was also green, with a gold Springbok leaping across his right breast. I could hardly believe he had chosen to wear the shirt so cherished by the men who had imprisoned him for twenty-seven years. The number on his back was a six. He wore the shirt that Francois Pienaar, the Afrikaans captain of the Springboks, had sent to him.

The whole stadium seemed to rise as one as they chanted his name: "Nelson…Nelson…Nelson…"

Mandela lifted his Springbok cap high and grinned still wider.

Sean Fitzpatrick, New Zealand's captain, led him down the black rank. When he reached Jonah Lomu, the seemingly unstoppable winger who had dominated the 1995 World Cup, Mandela stopped. "You," he said in his distinctive voice. "You are the one!" Lomu nodded and fidgeted. He was impatient to steamroller the Springboks and so he flexed the muscles in his massive neck.

Mandela and Pienaar were soon in a hand-holding huddle. The old leader reminded the Springbok captain that the whole country, the "new" South Africa, supported his team. Pienaar nodded his appreciation. Meanwhile, the man routinely described in our youth as the world's most dangerous terrorist beamed on.

The chant of "Nelson…Nelson…Nelson…" echoed from every corner of the ground.

Mandela then held James Small's hand tightly, wishing him well, telling the winger that he had an important job to do for South Africa. The man called Small was meant to stop a giant in Jonah Lomu.

Rugby gripped me again as, six thousand miles away, I hoped for a kind of miracle.

At the final whistle the exhausted teams were locked together at 12-12. The noise swelled as the entire crowd, which was mostly white, joined a township choir singing Shosoloza – a black workers' song turned into a South African rugby hymn.

Deep into extra time, Joost van der Westhuizen, an Afrikaans scrum-half, passed the ball to Joel Stransky, a Jewish fly-half. Stransky's boot made contact, and the ball cleared an outstretched All Black hand and began its spiraling climb. In London, we rose with it as the ball climbed higher with every turn. We were in the air as Stransky's drop-kick passed through the highest point of the Ellis Park posts.

"It's over!" a voice on our television yelped, "it's over!"

15-12 to South Africa. Pienaar was on his haunches, fingers squeezing his nose as if he might stem the tears. But Mandela, the inspirational motivator, the country's great moderator, called for his Afrikaans captain.

"Thank you for what you have done for South Africa," Mandela said.

"We could never do what you have done for South Africa," Pienaar answered.

After he had lifted the World Cup, with Mandela shaking his green sleeves in a shuddering dance, Pienaar was asked about the "tremendous support" given to the Springboks by 68,000 supporters across a tear-streaked Ellis Park. "David," Pienaar said, as casually as if he was on his mobile phone to an old pal, "we had 43,000,000 South Africans with us today…"

Even six thousand miles away, I was still one of them. Alison, my English wife, and I started our jive of a waltz across the room. "Let's get drunk," I said.

Eighteen months later, in December 1996, there was so much feeling in James Small that, facing him across a table, I made a silent decision to write Winter Colours. We sat in Cardiff's only Mexican restaurant. It was raining outside but, on the inside, the Small passion burned. It scorched through all my preconceptions linking rugby players to the conservatism of the game's institutions – from Ellis Park to Twickenham. After Small, it was easy to look beneath the scores and the competitions, the unity of teams and the nationalism of countries, and understand that rugby was also about individual men.

James Small told me about some personal heartache and, also, how he felt before the World Cup final. "It was eerie," he said. "On the way to the ground I listened to this song, Hymn of the Big Wheel, by Massive Attack. It's a beautiful song, with a slow and hypnotic beat, and this high voice [belonging to the great Jamaican singer Horace Andy] sings this line over and over...'and the big wheel keeps on turning…' I could see people walking to the ground, carrying the new flag and these banners – telling the world that Jonah Lomu had 'A Small Problem'. Time seemed to slow down. I got goosebumps. Like the song, it felt as if I had come full circle. The wheel had turned."

It seemed to me as if another big old wheel had turned a few days later when, after Small had played in a Springbok victory over Wales at the old Cardiff Arms Park, he met me that evening. Small had a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Under his arm there was a package which he soon handed to me.

"I want you to have this," Small said as he presented the Springbok jersey he had worn that afternoon. It was wrapped in plastic but the mud of Cardiff Arms Park glinted darkly through the shiny surface. I only told him later what that shirt meant to me, and how it reminded me of everything that was so powerful and unforgettable about South Africa. Then, I just grinned back at him, knowing that James Small had given me more than his green-and-gold jersey. He had given me the impetus for my next book.