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Playing the Enemy

How rugby helped to unite South Africa.

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If the success of “Netherland,” a novel built around cricketers, struck American readers as an unusual hit this summer, then they should prepare themselves for an even quirkier fall title: a book about rugby.

John Carlin’s Playing The Enemy documents events leading up to rugby’s historic World Cup Final in 1995. The newly democratic South Africa won the cup by beating New Zealand, the game’s greatest team, in Johannesburg.

But American readers shouldn’t be put off by this peculiar British game. For rugby is no more than a backdrop to this absorbing and frequently uplifting tale. The real star of this show is revealed in the book’s subtitle: “Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation.”

The book is an unashamed tribute to Mandela and the brilliant way he united South Africa by using a game that had once divided it.

For decades, rugby was the sport of South Africa’s white minority. To blacks, it was so synonymous with apartheid that when South Africa played a match, they passionately wanted their own country to lose.

The international community used sports as a tool to weaken the apartheid regime, and no one felt the boycott more keenly than rugby fans. Rugby was, Carlin says, “the opium of apartheid, the drug that dulled white South Africa to what their politicians were doing.” Mandela recognized that power and harnessed it for good.

Carlin tells us how Mandela read up on the game first as a way of interacting with his white jailers and then when he was freed in 1990 as a way of proving to his still suspicious opponents that he was not about to wreak vengeance for 27 years in jail and a lifetime of injustice.

The book is an imaginative and captivating study of the 20th century’s greatest African and is valuable in that it adds to the already substantial material documenting his life.

The magic of “Playing the Enemy” lies in its heart-warming anecdotes. Carlin had access to all the protagonists, including Mandela himself, and he teases some fantastic recollections out of them.

One story, about how a right-wing rugby player fell so in love with the spiritual Xhosa anthem of his opponents that it made him cry, is as touching as it is amazing.

It has been called the sports book that isn’t a sports book, and that’s an appropriate description.

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