Invictus: A Rare Rugby Film

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"Invictus," is directed by Clint Eastwood, and stars Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. The film is being released December 11 by Warner Bros.

Chester Williams' Advisement

In order to be ready to portray a veteran rugby player, Damon also got help from another star member of the 1995 Springboks, Chester Williams, who was then the only black member of the team. On "Invictus," Williams served as a coach for the onscreen rugby players and was an invaluable resource for the filmmakers.

McCreary attests, "Chester was a great technical advisor because he remembers every single play and where every person was. He was in a unique position in 1995, being the only black player on the Springboks. He became kind of a symbol at the time, which wasn't his choice because he really just wanted to play rugby. But he took on that mantle and ran with it. It was incredible to have him around and be the leader of our teams."?

Eastwood Becomes a Fan

"Chester wanted to make sure we played real rugby in the film," Eastwood adds. "He said, 'None of this fake movie stuff. We're going to play proper rugby,' as he put it. As you know, 'proper rugby' is a sport that's very rough. It's related to American football, but without any helmets or pads and players on both sides play offense and defense. It's a very tough game, and the guys who play it are a special breed of cat."

"Clint actually became a big rugby fan," says Lorenz. "When we were in South Africa, he would watch hours of rugby every night and come in the next morning and talk about the games. He enjoyed it quite a bit."

Intense Training

For the cast, preparing for the rigorous demands of actually playing rugby, "the training was very intense," Damon states. "I did a lot of weightlifting and put on a lot of muscle. I also did sprints, which I'd never done before, and some boxing. When I got to South Africa, Chester said, 'You look really fit. What have you been doing?' I said, 'Well, I've been weightlifting, boxing and sprinting.' And he looked at me for a while and then goes, 'Why didn't you just play rugby?'" he laughs.

Damon got his chance to play rugby as he and the other actors spent time on the practice field. Eastwood notes, "When you're an amateur depicting a professional, you have a lot of practicing to do to appear as skilled as these men were. All of the actors who hadn't played rugby before had a lot of catching up to do. At the same time, we didn't want our cast to get hurt out there playing with the pros, so we were kind of crossing our fingers the whole time."

Scott Eastwood, another rugby novice, played the role of Springbok member Joel Stransky, who was responsible for all of the points scored by the team in the World Cup Final. In addition to learning the overall game, Scott had to train to kick what's called a drop goal, similar to a field goal in American football.

Casting Rugby Players

Interestingly, Chester Williams was responsible for casting the man who plays him in the movie, McNeil Hendricks. Now working as a rugby coach, Hendricks had played professional rugby for years, including a stint with the Springboks in the late 1990s. He and Williams have known each other since their playing days, but it was happenstance that led to Hendricks playing his old friend in "Invictus." Williams recounts, "We were looking for weeks, but none of the players was right. I was in a shopping center and I ran into McNeil Hendricks. I said, 'I need you to come and play me,' and I was so happy that he said yes."

Hendricks says, "It was a great opportunity for me. Chester and I go back a long way, and we have similar personalities. When he played rugby, he was always smiling, and even when I spent lots of time getting knocked to the ground, I was always smiling, too. It was also spectacular to have a chance to work with people like Matt and Morgan and Clint Eastwood."

Most of the rugby players–although representing different countries competing in the onscreen games–were cast in South Africa. Sports coordinator Aimee McDaniel was responsible for assembling the men who would comprise the various teams.

McDaniel started working on the project just four months before principal photography commenced. She worked closely with Chester Williams and his fellow rugby coaches, Rudolf De Wee and Troy Lee, to choose the right men for the teams. McDaniel recalls, "The first thing I had to do was get about 500 rugby players together in about two weeks, which was a challenge because the season was about to start. We went to every rugby club in the area and handed out flyers for an open audition. All these rugby players came in, and we tried them out–doing drills with Chester and the other coaches–and cut them down until we had our final group. From there, the more complicated task was to match the right look with the right position. We ended up with a very cohesive unit."

Apart from playing rugby, the men playing the powerful New Zealand team, called the All Blacks, had to learn the traditional Maori war chant, called the Haka. "It's meant to intimidate the opposing team even before the start of the game," Eastwood explains.

Out of a sense of verisimilitude and "out of respect, we contacted the New Zealand Rugby Association to make sure the Haka would be done correctly," Lorenz offers. "They sent us an expert named Inia Maxwell, who assisted in the training and was present when we shot the scene so we knew the dance was accurate."