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Dodgy decisions and more dodgy ATMs


It’s amazing what a difference one point, or one dodgy onfield decision, can make to the rugby landscape. Had England landed one of their missed goalkicks, or kicked for touch when awarded that much spoken about penalty with two minutes to go and then scored a try, this would be a day of negative post-mortems and we would be looking back at the Springbok year as an unsuccessful one.

The try the Boks scored at Twickenham was perhaps one of the most fortuitous that has ever been scored in a match at the highest level, and even the most fanatical Bok fan would have to agree that England had enough of the match to win it. But the Boks did win, and it makes a substantial difference to how their year will be remembered.

Conversely, England, who played with such passion but just couldn’t breach the South African defence or make a dent in their extraordinary level of resilience and composure, copped a lot of flak in the English media on Sunday. Scotland coach Andy Robinson resigned after his team’s defeat to Tonga, and the line of questioning after Twickenham plus the media reaction suggested the England media believe Stuart Lancaster should do the same.

Lancaster was clearly miffed at captain Chris Robshaw’s error in kicking for goal when his team trailed by four points and the process of going through with the goalkick would eat into the precious little time that remained. But some of the English hacks were like a dog with a bone in their questioning, and in the end the England coach became uncharacteristically tetchy in trying to get his point across.

“We will deal with it on Monday morning through the proper process when the team gets together and when the emotion has died down. This would be an internal matter that will not be shared with the media,” said Lancaster.

I felt a lot of sympathy for Lancaster. Sometimes it confounds me that experienced sportswriters can be so stupid. It is true that they need their quotes to fuel the stories that the Robshaw decision warranted, but for goodness sake, what coach ever takes on his players, particularly his captain, in a public forum.


When they couldn’t get anything out of Lancaster, the English hacks tried to get Bok coach Heyneke Meyer and captain Jean de Villiers to give their view on the decision. Again, you didn’t need to have been part of the sports-writing fraternity for very long to predict that Meyer and De Villiers would offer what was tantamount to a no-comment.

But both did make a good point when they spoke about how easily it could have turned out very differently.

“If they had won the ball from the kick-off they could have driven us back into our half of the field and then they would have had a good chance of being awarded a long range penalty. I was worried about that,” said Meyer.

De Villiers pointed out that had England won the ball and retained possession from the restart, and it had worked out differently, there wouldn’t be any fuss being made about it.

As it turns out, Robshaw could so easily have escaped censure, for there was another mistake that didn’t get much airplay in the England media but played a big part in the England failure to get back into the South African half after the restart. Big South African lock Mouritz Botha, on as a replacement, went up to field the Patrick Lambie kick off and fumbled it into touch.

Had he not tried to play the ball and just let it continue on its path, it would almost certainly have gone out, which would have meant a scrum being set on the halfway line. Given how frequently referee Nigel Owens awarded penalties to England in the scrums – there were three and a free kick before halftime alone – there was a good chance another penalty would have been awarded, and England would have been able to get back into Bok territory and into a position to snap a drop-goal over.

The way England were controlling the ball at that stage of the game it could easily have happened. And then we would all be singing a different tune today.

But in the end winning is what is important, and the Boks won and England lost. There were a few games that the Boks would have won earlier in the year had they been more successful with their kicks at goal, and the Boks are now getting across the line as winners where previously they were falling short. The ability to win games that you should lose is the mark of a champion team. The Boks may not be that just yet, but they are starting to show signs of getting there.


The Boks are starting to get the wood on England at Twickenham, and as one who was there for the 53-3 nightmare in 2002, I must admit to some satisfaction. After the 2002 game an English journalist chided me with the words “I never thought I would see the day”.

To be blunt, I don’t think he is going to see any kind of winning day for England against the Boks in the foreseeable future. If England couldn’t beat a Bok team so disrupted by injury and generally just completely knackered, I am not sure they are going to manage it any time soon. The Boks should get better from here, and I’m not sure England have the talent or the depth to live with them going forward. Maybe if they appoint Nick Mallett…or Jake White… I actually made that point to my South African colleagues on Saturday night, but then added that “I think that bus has sailed…” It’s been as long a year for rugby writers as it has been for players, so I will have to be excused for mixing that up. There again, maybe I was right – speaking to my friends in the England media, it does appear many of them feel that the appointment of Lancaster has had the same impact on England rugby as there would be to a bus that is driven into the sea…


Lancaster had my sympathy when he was questioned about the decision to kick for goal, but I thought he was out to lunch with some of his other post-match comments. At one stage he made the point that his team had been asked to make the step up and that they had answered that call and proved themselves. But they lost, didn’t they?


There were more of those ATM and currency card problems I spoke about in my previous diary towards the end of our week in London. A colleague tried to draw 300 pounds, but the machine swallowed his card – and then he was sent notification that the 300 pounds had been subtracted from his currency card account.

It was similar to my experience a few days earlier, only in my case the call to the Johannesburg offices of the issuing company disclosed the information that it hadn’t been subtracted, it had just been ‘reserved’ and I could have it back on 1 December – by which time of course I would be back in South Africa and in no need for the foreign currency I had paid them to make available to me.

Like me, my colleague was told that there was nothing the issuing company could do about the situation, and he could lodge a complaint that would be sent to the bank who owned the ATM that swallowed his card. The process would take several weeks. Sorry, but there seems to be a warp in logic here as surely the point of a currency card is that you use the cash when you are still overseas. I am seriously yearning for the days when we got issued with travelers cheques when going on tour.


Former Springbok captain John Smit is either overly humble or he suffers from a really poor memory. In tweeting his congratulations to the current Boks after their victory at Twickenham, he made the point that he had never led a team on an unbeaten end of year tour. You’re actually wrong about that John – you won all three games here on the 2008 tour. The 14-10 win over Scotland at Murrayfield on that tour may have felt like a defeat because much of the Bok game was so poor, but it wasn’t actually.


What the Boks have really struggled to do, which the New Zealanders do regularly, is complete a Grand Slam. It’s a pity this year’s trip didn’t incorporate a match in Cardiff, for at the moment the Welsh look easy meat.


It appears being in England has protected me from my dickey heart as end of year fatigue has made it almost impossible to stay up all night to watch the cricket from Australia.

For once, instead of watching every ball that is bowled, I have been waking up early and just reading about it or watching the highlights. I went to bed after working last night not expecting anything, so it was a pleasant surprise when I turned on the television this morning at the start of my last day in London to see that the game was not only still on, but that Morne Morkel was in the process of facing the second last ball of the test.

No anxious gnawing of fingers when I heard the commentators say that South Africa had done it, just sheer elation. That was perfect timing! I look forward to some days of sunshine and early morning cricket when I get home. Come on summer!


WEEK 3:

Springbok selectors Peter Jooste and Ian McIntosh were stopped in their stride as they advanced down the touchline at the Latymer School on Monday. While the Boks were out on the field training, the South African journalists were in a huddle, involved in an animated debate.

The subject was the Boks, the coverage of this end of year tour, and the reaction to it from people back home. Some of the hacks have been a lot less harsh on the Boks than colleagues and fans in South Africa have been.

I don’t spend much time in social media forums or looking at the talk-back in cyberspace – thank you though to the person who said I should be writing about cricket, you’re damn right - but apparently there has been some flak directed at the tour coverage for being too soft.

In my communication with people in South Africa, the view has invariably been bleaker than mine, but I’ve probably been less overtly positive than others have been. So in the debate on Monday I took on the role of devil’s advocate, for the line from back home is one that I have been debating myself.

Yes, the Boks have won both their games so far. But what should we be expecting from the Boks? When it comes to rugby, South Africa is not Romania. There should be an expectation that you beat Scotland every time you play them, and that you lost the last time you played there really shouldn’t excuse mediocrity.

The match against the Irish the previous week, where the Boks came back from the dead to win, might well have been a turning point. But surely that is only something we can know in a year’s time, and not right now. After the Aviva Stadium win, some of us, and this includes myself, were perhaps a bit too quick to mark the second-half resurgence as a seminal moment in the Heyneke Meyer tenure.

Yes, the Boks were good after half time against Ireland, and also in the first 50 minutes against Scotland. But what they dished up the rest of the time was sheer dross, and that should not be overlooked.


It’s hard not to be more patriotic when you’re away from home, which may explain why it is sometimes said within the profession that when a sportswriter travels overseas he immediately becomes “a fan with a laptop”.

But more than the patriotism bit, there’s another reason why when on tour the travelling media prefer the Boks to win: It just improves the mood of the people you are interviewing. It prevents that horrible laager mentality that has enveloped some previous Bok touring squads from becoming all-pervasive.

It hasn’t bothered me as much as it has others. I remember a Bok player coming to me during the tour of New Zealand in 1994 and questioning my patriotism on the basis of a critical article that I had written. My response to him was that I am a reporter, not a supporter. And that is the way it should be. When I hear fellow journalists saying things like “I am worried about this game” I don’t understand it. Unless Heyneke actually asks me to play on Saturday, I can’t see what there would be for me to worry about.

Bryce Lawrence and the Alan Donald run-out at the 1999 Cricket World Cup aside, sport just fails to get those dark dogs to come calling. If the Boks lose at Twickenham, the pies and the beers will still taste the same, and win or lose it would still be risking death by exposure if we chose to sleep outdoors.

But back to the debate I was having with my colleagues – they’re not fans with laptops, but deep thinking people who are well informed of all the different layers of the Bok mission on this trip. The communication from coaches to media is certainly a level above what it has usually been in the past, and I suspect the dialogue may also be more cerebral than it has been in the past.

One of Peter de Villiers’s biggest failings was that he just made himself so difficult to understand. Meyer has been the antithesis, and there may even be times when he talks too much and gives too much of his method away.

Should the Boks be getting more flak? Perhaps, and I do agree with those who feel that there is a lack of ambition. We are all hoping that the Boks will at some stage start to grow their game to something that will entail more than just kicking opposition into the corners, and that is not happening.

But then the new Bok coach has been chasing his tail since he arrived in the job. Five days to prepare for the first test against England in June weren't enough, and now he boasts a record that leaves him with very little credit in the bank. I don’t like the fear of failure that seems to drive Bok rugby at the moment, but I understand it.

Perhaps if we, and the ‘we’ in this instance embraces media and supporters, were less demanding and more realistic, it would be possible for some proper rebuilding to be done and some proper growth to happen. But it’s not going to happen, so winning is the only imperative, and that mentality promotes conservatism.


One thing I can never understand when moving from Edinburgh to London is why some people opt to fly between the two cities. This has nothing to do with my lack of love for flying. Travelling by train just makes more sense.

Think about it. When you fly you have to put aside half an hour for the journey from the city centre to the airport. You then hang around there for another hour and a half, and while you’re doing that you have your bags searched, your body frisked, your bag emptied, then comes the hour and a bit of flying plus the more than an hour it takes for you to collect your luggage and get from Heathrow into London.

This past Sunday I walked maybe 500 metres from my city centre hotel to the Waverley Station, and 10 minutes later I was sitting reading the Sunday newspapers and enjoying a coke and Panini as the train sped me along the panoramic east coast towards London. Four and a half hours later I was at Kings Cross, and journalist colleagues who had left Edinburgh at the same time as me were still somewhere in the air. Let me say it: That’s just stupid, mate.


Sometimes progress really isn’t progress at all, but movement in the opposite direction. In the days we travelled with traveller’s cheques it may have been an inconvenience to have to rely on the outlets and banks being open. But at least you were assured that you had the use of all the cash that was deposited into the account.

I had a John Cleese/Basil Fawlty moment this week when I had to spend a small fortune on my telephone bill in phoning the well-known South African based company that issued me with my currency card to ask why I still had money taken off my account when two separate ATMs failed to issue me with cash.

“It hasn’t been taken off, it’s been reserved. You will be able to get it back on 1 December,” was the response from Joburg when finally I got through.

So here comes my Fawlty moment: “Oh, so you mean the money I converted into pounds for this trip will be available to me five days AFTER I get back to South Africa!! Thank you so bloody much!”

I was then told I should contact the banks themselves to lodge a dispute as they had made the mistake and therefore it was their problem and not the problem of the company I had paid my money to for the currency card. Huh? Am I the only one who sees the problem in that?

Finally they asked me to lodge the dispute through them. The first question went like this: “What did the ATM look like? Was there anything suspicious about it?”

What did it look like? “It looked like a freaking ATM, for goodness sake. I don’t tend to spend much time admiring ATMs for their aesthetic appeal. It was just an ATM, and if it had looked like a fish pond or a dog kennel, I wouldn’t have put my freaking card in it…”

The lesson to be taken from this: Think twice about getting a currency card. There’s stuff they’re not telling you. You could conceivably just encounter a whole lot of ATMs that are “Temporarily unavailable” but still “reserve” the cash so that you can only use it next Christmas. And you will starve in the meantime.


Okay, so that put me in a foul mood. But at least the weather on this trip has been good. In fact, it’s been astounding for a British autumn. I am staying with a friend at the moment on the edge of Battersea Park, and beyond that is the Thames, and beyond that is Chelsea and Sloane Square, then South Kensington, High Street Kensington etc etc… In fact, I could give you a worded tour of the city if you like, as for once I have stayed away from the underground and done all my travel above the ground, quite a bit on foot. It gives a different perspective. If it wasn’t for the dodgy ATMs, this place would be really cool…


WEEK 2:

Being in Edinburgh last Monday would have been an eye-opener for anyone who doubted the worldwide popularity of the All Blacks.

The world champions ended up sharing a hotel in Edinburgh last Sunday with the Springboks, who flew through from their game against Ireland in Dublin on the same day that the All Blacks played the Scots at Murrayfield. The top two teams in world rugby had to co-exist for a night, which wasn’t much of a problem as the players, hard though they play against each other on the field of play, do get on well away from it.

What was surprising though, or at least to those who don’t know that Cape Town is not the only city outside of New Zealand that has a lot of All Black fans, was the large turn-out of people who gathered outside the hotel at Monday lunch-time. As the Kiwi players and management members walked out to the bus that would take them to the Edinburgh airport ahead of their flight to Rome, they were confronted by a throng of supporters.

Were they expatriate Kiwis? Perhaps there were some, but they looked more like a cosmopolitan group made up of people who just admire the way the All Blacks play their rugby. The All Blacks have always been one of the more popular teams on the international circuit, but that popularity has been increased since they won the World Cup on home soil last year.

The challenge for the Boks is to try and close the gap that the Kiwis have opened up as the world’s leading rugby brand, but the way I see it, that challenge is about much more than just winning matches. The Boks beat Scotland at Murrayfield a few days ago, but you got the sense from back home that people in South Africa were underwhelmed by the performance.

I do feel sorry for Bok coach Heyneke Meyer. Sometimes there is just expectation that is unrealistic, and there have been times in the past where Scotland have been helped by the conditions and have made life a lot more difficult for the Boks than might have been expected.

But this past Saturday surely can’t be ranked among those days. The weather was probably as perfect as I have ever seen it at Murrayfield, and although it was much colder than back home in South Africa, it was certainly well short of being a wet weather game and the conditions weren’t that much different from what the players are used to.

Scotland coach Andy Robinson lauded the Boks for the way they squeezed his men out of the contest with their physicality and tactical kicking, and had the Boks been able to kick on from the innings that had been built, we might have seen some tries created out of something other than the driving maul or intercept.

From my vantage point in the press box at Murrayfield, it was also clear that the Scots were closing up the space on defence extremely quickly, and for me there were many times when they were off-sides without referee George Clancy doing anything about it.

However, while it is true that a win is a win, and that is ultimately the bottom line in international rugby, there is an interesting debate to be had about the responsibilities carried by a Bok coach. I used to think that South Africans would be happy with a win regardless of how it was achieved, but I am starting to wonder about that.

The Stormers finished top of the log in Super Rugby and yet you always got the sense that their fans weren’t happy and wouldn’t be until such time as they started grabbing four-try bonus points. And for both the Boks and the Stormers, this has not been a year marked by outstanding attacking play.

Kicking a team into the corners might be applauded when it achieves results over a big team like New Zealand, but when it is the approach used against a lesser team like Scotland, you quickly reach a point where you start wondering if it is not being overdone. That was the case this past weekend, and the way the Boks laboured over their ugly win would not have done anything to draw new supporters.


It was interesting to listen to the two coaches talk after the game. Both of them blamed the penalties conceded for the periods of play where the other team dominated. Robinson was quite right when he said that it was impossible for his men to get out of their own half in the first 40 minutes when they were conceding penalties all the time, and he blamed indiscipline, and Meyer said the same about his team’s second 40. He said it was like the first half of last week in Dublin.

But in neither instance did they blame the referee, or make it appear they might be blaming the referee. Instead they acknowledged that in both instances it was the team that enjoyed the momentum and was applying the pressure that was forcing the penalties. And that just about sums up how rugby goes these days.


Rugby press conferences in Scotland are different in the same way as rugby press conferences can be different ahead of test matches in Port Elizabeth – with the local hacks eager to find out what visiting teams think about their city, their food, their culture and their rugby. So they really lapped it up when the Bok coach waxed lyrical about his experiences in Scotland – he was there with the Boks as assistant coach at the 1999 World Cup, and he toured there as a young coach when he was at teacher’s training college.

When Meyer started talking about the people he knew in Scotland, it sounded like a who’s who of Scottish rugby. Then the angle of questioning moved to his time with Leicester in England, and Meyer was asked about someone who he must have been involved with there.

“Who?” asked Meyer looking a bit confused.

He was told the name (I don’t remember it) and the look suggested Meyer had never heard of it before, but politeness appeared to spur him to answer positively.

“Oh yes, it’s going to be nice to see him again,” said Meyer, but it appeared he hadn’t the faintest notion who it was he was going to be seeing.


Managing the players requires a fine balancing act at this time of year. The players are tired after a long season, and fatigue can be a problem if they spend too much time on the training field. So it was good to see Meyer allowing his players to let their hair down this week, with the members of the squad being encouraged to be proper tourists and get out and about in Edinburgh.

It does appear that Meyer, now that he is getting used to the pressures of being in the job, is lightening up and getting better with the important outreach aspect of being Springbok coach.

He is still nervous at press conferences, but his sense of humour carries him through. On Monday he told the media that he was very angry with his players as there have now been seven successive games where the opposition has kicked more than his team has.

“I want us to kick every ball away, so it does irritate me,” he said with a deadpan expression before breaking out into a big smile.


The Springbok reaction to the victory at Murrayfield – “It was ugly but we’ll take the win” – did remind me of the column I wrote after a similarly ugly but much narrower victory they scored there in 2008. The bottom line for me is that when it comes to rugby, South Africa is not Romania, and a victory over Scotland should be an anticipated event.


WEEK ONE:

With Aviva Stadium now taking its place among the world’s most modern rugby venues, and having already seen the bigger Croke Park used successfully as a rugby union venue in 2009, maybe it’s time to consider awarding Ireland a World Cup.

There have been two World Cups played in this part of the world – three if you include the short hop across the English Channel to France – with one hosted by England (1991) and another by Wales (1999). England is getting another turn when next the sport stages its global showpiece event, so you have to ask: Why not Ireland?

Before the revamp into Aviva, there would have been one excellent reason – the rickety old stadium at Lansdowne Road just wasn’t up to scratch and could never have been considered as a host venue for a final.

In my rugby writing career I have attended matches at three venues that can be considered to have been relics of a bygone era - Lansdowne Road, the old Athletic Park in Wellington, New Zealand, and Newlands.

The last mentioned is the only one that survives in its original form, and I wonder how long that will be the case?

But back to Ireland, a country which really is amazing to visit, not least because of the passionate and hospitable people that live here. It’s also a big rugby country these days, which is why I would give them the nod ahead of the other Home Union yet to host a World Cup, Scotland.

We saw in 1999, when the Boks were based in Edinburgh and Glasgow for a while, that the Scots didn’t turn out in vast numbers to support teams other than their own. The big difference between Scots and Irish when it comes to rugby is that you do get the impression that the Irish sometimes expect to win.

With Scotland it is always a major surprise if they do win, as was the case the last time the Boks were there in 2010. Ireland have Croke Park to back up Aviva Stadium in Dublin, and there are a couple of venues in Belfast too, but Wales don’t have much more than that, and the World Cup organisers got around that by spreading games to the other Home Unions and to France in 1999.


Of course their beverages are something the Irish are renowned for, so it was apt that in soaking up the pre-match vibe at a pub a stone’s throw from Aviva I should bump into the good fellows from our own national brewery. They do get their clients around the place, and recently a group of them were taken to the Lord’s test for the first two days and then took an overnight flight to Cape Town to attend the first Castle Championship test (ah, the penny has finally dropped as to why they saw that as necessary!) between the Boks and Argentina.

The national brewery does seem to be in much better shape than our national carrier, and their cancellation of the direct flights from Cape Town to London prompted me to use Richard Branson’s mob to get me here.

Great decision, though the flight was so empty it felt like crew almost outnumbered passengers. Hard economic times or what?


We know about the hard economic times being experienced by the people of Ireland, and visits to suburbs outside Dublin issue a stark reminder through the many empty shop windows. But the Dublin city centre remains as vibrant as ever, with restaurants full and a lot of that dark liquid being consumed everywhere I went. It remains a city where you feel like you are cheating yourself if you sleep, which reminds me of the Bok visit to Ireland in 2004. Jake White irritated every Irish man, woman and child when, in answering a direct question with a direct answer, he said that there were only one or two Irishmen who would be good enough to make the Springbok side.

Boy, did the Irish just keep talking about it, and during a troll through Dublin’s night-spots a few nights before the game, several locals interrupted my sipping of their fine products by wanting to talk about Jake. But they didn’t put enough of a break on my sipping for it not to have an effect. I was only just back from my night on the tiles when I received a 5am phone call from a radio station in South Africa unaware of the two hour time difference. I decided it was time to let the Irish have it for their attitude to Jake.

Only I didn’t call him Jake, I kept on calling him Jock, and if Mark Keohane, who was with me, outlives me and talks at my funeral, he will probably tell all the sobbing people about how I started off my report by saying: “If there is one South African name that the entire Ireland population knows off by heart right now, it is that of the Springbok coach, Jock White. Let me tell you, I’ve just been out on the town, and everywhere I go everyone just wants to talk about Jock… It’s Jock this, and Jock that, they really hate our Jock…”


Talking of Jock, that stuff you’ve just read was written on the Dublin side of the Irish Sea. One turbo-prop flight later I have just arrived in Edinburgh, and have been reminded what an astoundingly beautiful city it is. The weather is good too, so hopefully it will hold, for my last few visits to Murrayfield have been inclement to say the least. Not that the weather will stop me enjoying what I really came here for – a good haggis.

When you marry a Scot, you get to appreciate Scottish things…


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