Tour diary: Castle Lager Rugby Championship
Sunday, September 1
Song for the day: Road to nowhere – Talking Heads
Over the years we’ve become used to spending a bit extra away from home, and knowing the recent woes our Rand has been through hasn’t made things easier.
But there is nothing like that initial shock when you’re hit – during a three-hour layover stay at Sydney airport – with the harsh reality that a beer Down Under costs R90. It makes every sip bitter; it makes you wish for the reasonable prices of our own Charles Glass. But most of all, it reminds you that things are never easy away from home.
It may be a tough analogy, but while some use the Big Mac index – a chart to compare the relative pricing in different countries based on the price of a Big Mac – I tend to use the beer index. After all, the amber liquid and rugby go well together, and I’m sure I’ll be forgiven for making the comparison.
Still, arriving in Brisbane to glorious weather brought back memories. It brought back a reminder of how the Boks have lost here before, of how the times I have spent in this city in the past have been coupled with defeat, and how difficult a place it is for opposition sides to win at.
The next thing you never get used to is the jetlag – although with the first two nights of blissful sleep it felt like that wasn’t an issue this time around – that was until later in the week.
The week started off pretty well, a Sunday morning walk around the water with my SuperSport colleagues Matt Pearce and Raymond Kotze setting the tone for what was to be a rather pleasant week indeed.
Brisbane is a beautiful city, the cold concrete skyscrapers intertwining with the river that snakes its way through the city, interlaced with street walkways and cafes, and becoming more multicultural by the day.
And so the Boks arrived in the evening. After brief hellos they were off to sleep, keen to try and put the long journey behind them.
Monday, September 2
Song for the day: Don’t let me be misunderstood – The Animals
Team doctor Craig Roberts and coach Heyneke Meyer were up first, and it is clear that the Boks were on a charm offensive.
The Australian media did their best to get them to say anything controversial, but Heyneke wasn’t going to bite. After all, the Boks did want to face a running Australian team. They were confident and felt they had a chance.
The Boks had a gentle flush-out in the pool while we tried to adjust to jetlag. Cappuccinos are not quite the tonic they promise to be.
A gentle meal was a telling reminder of what the prices are like in Australia, with a T-bone steak going for a small fee of $35 at the famous Breakfast Creek hotel.
This wasn’t an exception either, but rather the norm for the Brisbane CBD area.
We also discovered that Australia has some strange names. Of course we all know why they call one beer XXXX – as the joke goes – because no Australian can spell “beer” but there were a variety of lovely brews there including 150 Lashes, Monkeys hand and other weird sounding names.
The news headlines are dominated by a League player who has been charged for punching his partner in the face. A reminder of how different the two codes are…
Tuesday, September 3
Song for the day: She talks to Angels – The Black Crowes
Two pressers and the contrast couldn’t be more marked. The Wallabies are talking physicality with James Slipper wanting to “light a match” under the Boks, while James O’Connor seems bemused with all the attention.
On the other side of town, Bismarck du Plessis is practicing his best English and promptly stuns an Aussie journo by telling him he has answered his own question.
The 'rooi taal' may not be Bissie’s first choice, but he’s no blunt instrument either….
One of the more interesting moments came in trying to find the Hilton hotel in the Queen Street mall, which is hidden behind shops and on a pedestrian concourse.
When one Afrikaans journo asked where the press conference would be, the concierge answered: “Sorry mate, that’s confidential.”
Stunned and clearly not taking that as an answer, he let off a barrage telling her “A confidential press conference, that’s a first!” without pointing out that it was an oxymoron and she was well…being Australian.
At training that afternoon we saw the first effects of travel as Eben Etzebeth sat out at the practice session at the Anglican Church Grammar School.
The school is one with a myriad of facilities that would make most schools in South Africa jealous and as we wandered around the fields during training, we noticed that the schoolboy teams were all doing breakdown training – something you hardly see at schools in South Africa.
It was a gentle reminder why Australia – with less rugby players – always can compete – their skills base is good and they learn it at a young age.
The school had two famous Wallabies in Quade Cooper and David Pocock and both have been a thorn in the Boks’side.
The bizarre news item of the day is of an AFL team who on their “Monday madness” – the traditional let your hair down celebrations at the end of a season – hired dwarves as entertainment and managed to set one on fire. The mind boggles.
Wednesday, September 4
Song of the day: Get Lucky – Daft Punk
Team announcement day always has a bit of a buzz about it. Players are happy, and the press as well. The week is heading somewhere, and it reminds us the business of why we are here is fast approaching.
After Heyneke talks up the Aussies, it’s the turn of Francois Louw, Zane Kirchner and Ruan Pienaar to face the media. Little pods of journos huddle around them while asking questions.
It’s clear that Kirchner is a bit peeved. Social media goes into overdrive and suddenly my inbox is filled with friends and fans all asking if Heyneke has lost his mind. Kirchner, who is mostly the happy-go-lucky guy of the team, shows flashes of frustration when talking about how he is perceived.
It’s a reminder that players are humans, and sometimes fans go too far. The Aussie press of course is perplexed by all of this.
Later at training we see a different side. Kirchner and Willie le Roux are deep in conversation before every move. There are little smiles and nods, you can feel something is brewing…
A hoard of schoolboy rugby players crowd the Boks and storm them for autographs and photos. Everybody has a smartphone and wants their moment captured. The guys oblige and enjoy it, with Bryan Habana cracking jokes with the youngsters.
The evening is spent in Brisbane’s Chinatown, where we find cuisine that is mildly cheaper than in town, with the real highlight a darkly-lit bar with a jazz band doing jazz covers of chart hits. Life is good around here, and the night confirms it.
Thursday, September 5
Song of the day: The Rising – Bruce Springsteen
It’s about this time of the week on tour you realise you’ve done little shopping for the folks back home and you tear into town looking for a souvenir which is ultimately made in China.
It’s hard not to be kitsch when shopping in Oz. After all, it’s not my first trip here, and how many boomerangs, didgeridoos or stuffed kangaroos can you take home?
A floppy hat with corks on? Naah mate, that’s not good as gold.
Stumbling into the local sports shop we spot a Bok jersey. A princely sum of R1 500 for the honour of wearing it on Saturday, we remark at how much cheaper it is back home and while we’re doing that, bump into Aussie captain James Horwill, who is doing a signing session in the store. He looks dejected but in decent spirits.
We bump into fellow shoppers in defence coach John McFarland, backs coach Ricardo Loubscher and breakdown consultant Richie Grey. The team have the day off and inevitably a number have gone to play golf.
We hear news of an AFL team player who upended a fan in a wheelchair and then stole his cab. Classy that…
That night most of them will head to a League game, while we will have a quiet night in town. Friday is fast approaching.
Friday, September 6
Song of the day: Don’t stop me now – Queen
Jean de Villiers is in good spirits when he gives his Friday presser as we end off the work part of the week. Like the players we want to get to the game.
There is a growing confidence in the team and we can sense it, but having been disappointed so many times before, we temper our expectations.
Once the workday ends, we head to have a quiet drink, where one of our own emerges with a bag of biltong – given to him by former Wallaby captain Phil Kearns of all people.
Standing in a bar we see some very poor scenes of Aussies who have had a bit too much and it provides much entertainment, as does a Spartacus challenge from one of the group on the evening.
We finally retire knowing that the evening has cost way too much, but it has been fun.
Saturday, September 7
Song of the day: I believe I can fly – R Kelly
Game day and all is quiet. It is a long day to an 8pm kick-off, and the day is spent lounging around in the hotel.
We head off early and find a place to watch the All Black game, but because the two matches are so close, we only watch the first half.
Suncorp is an imposing stadium, looking more like a glass cage from the outside than anything else.
More than anything there is a lack of atmosphere and we worry about what will unfold. But from the kick-off we recognise this is a different Bok animal on the night. They romp home and the Aussie press are in disbelief.
Afterwards the Boks are very humble and talk up the Aussies, without one word of congratulations coming from the hosts. Heyneke Meyer apologises for his overzealous reactions to the tries, but he shouldn’t have.
There are many who feel the same as him and passion is a wonderful thing to see in sport.
Coenie Oosthuizen and Willie le Roux pitch up for their first interviews of the season, being notoriously shy of the media, but both are naturals. Candid and honest, they both make great impressions.
After 14 matches in Australia and New Zealand as a journalist, I had finally seen a Bok team win. It was a magical night.
Afterwards in the team hotel there were a few cold ones in celebration. And when I finally walked across the road to my hotel, I was so inspired that I phoned home and sang my family a very off-key version of Waltzing Matilda. It was beautiful.