It takes leather balls to play rugby. Leather rugby balls are the same shape as the ones used in American football, but other than having goalposts, that seems to be the only similarity. Rugby players use no helmets or padding, and part of the game consists of thousands of pounds of heaving manpower straining against each other in a giant mound of flesh on the field. To say that I don't understand rugby is a gross understatement. It is said that soccer is a gentlemen's game played by hooligans, and rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentle- men. Soccer was popular with blacks in Apartheid South Africa, while rugby was equally popular with whites.

When Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa, he realized he needed something that could knit two disparate populations into one country, unified by a common goal. He dreamt of doing just that if South Africa could win the 1995 World Cup Championship Rugby match. The captain of the national rugby team, played by Matt Damon ("The Informant!" and the "Bourne" franchise), is stunned to realize that Mandela expects his mediocre Springboks to go all the way.

"Invictus" means invincible or unconquered, which, by the way, is a terrific title for a sports movie, and this one leaves no cliché behind. You know, the "slender hope against overwhelming odds," "the little guy against Goliath," and "Let's win this one for the Gipper!" (well... for Mandela... but you get the idea). And clichés become clichés because they WORK!

Many, many years ago when Nelson Mandela first met Morgan Freeman ("The Dark Knight"), he said, "You should play me in a movie some day." Years of friendship followed, during which Freeman paid close attention to Mandela's delivery, walk, speech and mannerisms. When he had a script that met with approval, Freeman took it to Clint Eastwood ("Gran Torino") who signed on instantly.

This is a big movie that doesn't neglect small details: Mandela's dream of integration started with his own staff. The bristling animosity that con- fronts him is realistic and the gradual easing of tensions is a pleasure to watch. Eastwood and Freeman found a worthwhile topic and made the most of it. Thanks, guys!