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Rugby | Springboks

Matthew Pearce © Gallo Images

Matt's Bok Tour Diary - Week 3



November 24

Arriving into Italy after seeing and hearing so much about Rugby World Cup 2023 in Paris the previous week, it is immediately evident that this is predominantly and unashamedly a football country.

Yet there is widespread despair – the taxi drivers, the shop-keepers, the hotel staff – at the national team’s failure to qualify for the Fifa World Cup for the first time in 60 years, something which economic commentators here believe will cost the Italian economy, wait for it, north of a billion Euros.

The Italians’ second leg draw against Sweden last week, which made the latter the final qualifier for Russia 2018, was also a stark reminder that sport so often doesn’t play ball when it comes to fairy-tale endings, 39-year-old captain, goalkeeper and Italian icon Gianluigi Buffon’s career over with a woefully unfitting send-off.

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Saturday’s test match will be the second to be played by the Springboks in the northern Italian city of Padua (also called Padova), where they played in 2014 and won the match 22-6. It has a population of under 250 000 people and lays claim to being the oldest city in northern Italy, its foundation stones dating back to many centuries BC.

It is somewhat mind-boggling for a South African to contemplate that there was a university in Padua in the early 13th century! While the city centre is cobble-stoned and utterly charming, the team hotel was chosen for convenience and proximity to stadium and training facilities, in a semi-industrial area about 10 kilometres outside the city centre. As one Cape-raised media man put it, ‘more Paarden Eiland than Padova’!

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When navigating new and unfamiliar places on tour, the local liaison officer assigned to the team is a vital ally in terms of logistics and communication, particularly in smaller towns and cities such as this one where English is not widely spoken.

The Boks have been spoiled by the allocation of Polla Roux to the liaison duties this week, a former Boland scrumhalf who has made quite a name for himself in Rovigo as a player and is now coaching at one of Padova’s local clubs, Valsugana, where the Boks have been training this week.

He juggles his coaching and liaison duties with visiting teams with what he calls his “proper job”, working for a company that exports citrus fruits to the east. He travels regularly back to South Africa has his company has acquired three farms there to increase their export capacity.

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While much has been made of Brendan Venter’s involvement with the Italian national team in their victory over the Springboks in Florence last year and his possible future role with either side heading towards the 2019 World Cup in Japan, many fewer words have been written about the softly-spoken former Bulls and Stormers back Marius Goosen, who was last year and remains an integral part of the Azzuri’s coaching staff alongside Irish head coach Conor O’Shea.

Having served Benetton Treviso with distinction as a player – the club at which current Bok assistant Franco Smith had also excelled both as player and coach – the club turned to Goosen as head coach last year, entrenching him as something of a club legend. He remains with the Italian national side as well.

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On the media- and training-free day of the week, Wednesday, I took the opportunity to catch a train into Venice and spend some time soaking in the sights of this extraordinary city, last visited with my parents as a ten-year-old. The familiarity of it all was incredible and I even managed to find the exact bed and breakfast we had stayed in over three decades ago, near the iconic Rialto bridge.

Although the chill of winter is very much in the air, the gondoliers are still very active on the canals of Venice, paddling tourists (mostly starry-eyed couples) around their watery ‘streets’. Full marks to the skills of the unsuspecting gondolier who had to maintain the balance of his narrow vessel while transporting two Springbok front row forwards, two backs and two management… no mean feat!

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No entry in this tour diary is complete without some kind of culinary reference; one of the joys of travelling for me personally is sampling different local cuisine and Italy provides plenty of opportunity.

Being relatively far out of the city, we found a local trattoria one night and indulged in the proprietor’s recommendations, from antipasti, through primi piatti (pasta dish), secondi (main course) and dolci (dessert).

When it came to the latter, our proud host said in broken English that we could choose from “chocolate cake made by me, or tiramisu made by my mother”. His mother got the vote and we were not disappointed…superb, and yet another indication of the importance and inclusivity of all generations of family in Italian culture.

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At Thursday’s team announcement there was a welcome lighter moment in among some of the omnipresent pressures of this tour.

When coach Allister Coetzee was asked about whether the shock first-ever defeat to Italy in Florence last year had factored at all in the planning and mental preparation for this week, he started his answer by saying: “Not at all, we have definitely put Florence to bed…” before going on to explain that very few players here were involved in that game.

Once he had finished, Liam del Carme, here to write for the Sunday Times, quipped: “Coach, be careful about commenting in public about putting Florence to bed… these things can quickly escalate into rumours!” Everyone saw the funny side, not least Coetzee.

November 21

Returning to an empty Stade de France for the Springboks’ captain’s practice on Friday was a slightly surreal experience, given it was the first time I had been there since the World Cup final in 2007, which I attended as a spectator at very short notice.

As I looked up at the corner of the ground where I had sat for the game, next to none other than former Bafana captain Lucas Radebe, I recalled the joy of the occasion and had a positive though at the end of a week of disappointment for South African rugby… we have won every World Cup played in France. Roll on 2023!

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The Springbok jersey presentation was performed by departing assistant coach Johann van Graan, who left the day after the Paris to take up his position as head coach at Munster in Ireland. There was much emotion visible in the eyes of the players as they took their places for the team photograph following his inspiring message.

Van Graan had been part of the Springbok coaching set-up since the start of the 2012 season; I have witnessed first hand how he has gained the respect of international coaching teams, his latest appointment being a testament to that. A head coach role in a challenging environment will help him to grow and, being a proud South African, I have no doubt he will be back to contribute to South African rugby in the future.

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Bumped into (not literally, thankfully) the unmistakable, towering figure of former French lock Olivier Roumat in the hotel breakfast room on the day before the Paris test and managed to have a simple conversation in his broken English and my far more broken French.

There was something weirdly refreshing about hearing someone from another country complaining about the political in-fighting in the administration of their game and how the steady influx of foreign players into their premier competition is having a negative effect on their national team.

With just seven wins from their last 20 test matches heading into the game against the Springboks, it was hard to disagree.

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On the morning of the test, I took the first opportunity to walk down one side of the Champs Elysees from the Arc de Triomphe and then back up the other side, observing a busy Saturday morning in the French capital. As referenced in the previous edition of this diary, police and army presence in the city is obvious, which provides a strange mixed feeling of security on the one hand with increased fear on the other.

Walking down towards the River Seine away from the shopping area, the sidewalks become gravel and notable by their current absence are the market stalls that have traditionally been set up here in the lead up to Christmas. The locals tell us that they were cancelled this year due to the horrific attacks on pedestrians using vehicles in major cities of late. The market is just too great a temptation for terror.

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Saturday was quite a day for the Du Preez family when Daniel replaced Siya Kolisi to win his first cap for the Springboks, two weeks shy of a year since his twin brother Jean-Luc earned his first against Wales.

The Du Preez’s became just the second set of twins to represent South Africa at rugby – following in the footsteps of Akona and Odwa Ndungane – and, while there have been nine other instances of father-and-son combinations playing for the Springboks, Dan’s capping represented the first time a father (Robert) and two of his sons had represented the Springboks.

As tradition dictated, he wore his cap all the way back to the hotel, to the team’s post-match gathering and, probably, to bed.

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France is the only country in which teams are subjected to 9pm kick-off times, a huge challenge for visiting teams who have deal with pent-up nervous energy all day and half of the night before kick-off.

Once showers and media duties were complete, the half hour bus ride back to the hotel had the Boks arriving back after 1am on Sunday morning and there was the matter of a truck to be packed to transport all luggage and training gear to Italy by road.

Contrary to some social-media belief, the All Blacks do not have a monopoly on humility and doing their own dirty work – the gathering of bags and packing of the truck involved all squad members until almost 2am.

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The “disappointing week” previously referenced was primarily due to World Rugby’s council voting against World Rugby’s unanimously recommended candidate to host the World Cup in 2023, a situation which President Bill Beaumont says is “not embarrassing for World Rugby at all”. Go figure.

But in the wake of the Springboks’ nervy win against Les Bleus, I couldn’t help think of Bernard Laporte’s smug words after his country were voted for as the hosts. “We (the French) like fighting,” he said. “We like winning and winning something difficult.”

Perhaps he should pass that message on to his national rugby team, who now have won seven of their last 21 matches. Mieaauw.



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