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Rugby | Springboks

Matthew Pearce © Gallo Images

Matt's final tour diary



Visiting a stadium on the day before a match for the captain’s run is always a slightly surreal experience, just a few people in a cavernous space capable of hosting up to 75 000 just 24 hours later. It is a feeling exacerbated at what is now called the Principality Stadium – formerly the Millennium – with the roof closed and the sounds reverberating around in the empty space.

What also makes the experience incongruous is the presence of the massive lights that are moved around to various parts of the pitch in a methodical way to provide the necessary light and heat to grow in the shade of the roof. It really is agronomy at a completely different level, but technology that contributes to the spectacle of test rugby played in Wales considerably compared to the days of sticky mud at Cardiff Arms Park.

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With Tendai Mtawarira out injured and Steven Kitshoff getting his second test start against Wales, ‘The Beast’ was asked to conduct the jersey hand-over on the day before the test, immediately before the official team photograph.

Once the photo has been taken, tradition dictates that the person handing out the jerseys goes into the second row, immediately behind the seated captain.

Front row seats in the photo go to the most capped players in the team for that game, regardless of whether they are starting or on the bench. So it was that, after a number of years in the photo’s front row in playing kit, the 98-times-capped ‘Beast’ was standing behind Eben Etzebeth in his Springbok blazer and tie.

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As I walked into the hotel lobby on the Friday evening before the test, I was approached by a Welsh local who said in a beautifully lyrical accent: “You’re the bloke from the telly, aren’t you? I saw you announcing the awards for the Currie Cup Final.” I smiled and nodded…our domestic rugby still travels far and wide.

Having asked if we could “talk rugby for 15 minutes or so”, he introduced himself as Julian Jenkins and proclaimed himself to be a passionate Sharks fan. He also told me about the contents of the package he was carrying and was waiting patiently in the lobby to present to its future owner.

Every time an international team visits Cardiff, his wife knits a woollen shawl to give to a chosen player. And, despite his love of the Sharks, Julian and his wife’s chosen recipient was Siya Kolisi, as he had read about the birth of his daughter the previous week.

When Siya arrived back from his early dinner, Julian proudly handed his wife’s handiwork over with a hand-written note to the Kolisi family. Very special.

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ONE OF THE GREAT EXPERIENCES IN THE RUGBY WORLD

The South African national anthem was expertly sung by a massive male voice choir, accompanied by a full military brass and wind band. But what followed was simply spine chilling. For the Welsh anthem, Land of Our Fathers, I took my earphones off and just soaked it all in.

Again, the closed roof adds much to the experience of the singing as the entire space resonates with the sound. As it finished and the pyrotechnics were going off, I turned to co-commentator Owen Nkumane and said words to the effect of: “No matter what team you support or where your allegiance lies, that is quite simply one of the great experiences in the rugby world.”

The first time I had been here for a test in 2008, I had tears rolling down my cheeks during that anthem. I may have hardened up a fraction since then, but it will always be something very special, as it is when the choir of tens of thousands belts out Bread of Heaven to encourage and inspire their team.

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Another wonderful attribute of test rugby in Cardiff is its proximity to the city centre. Although no team travels to a stadium on foot before a test match, Cardiff is probably the one city where it is possible from the Springboks’ hotel, while the pubs and restaurants are packed before and after game, much of the city centre having been converted to pedestrian walkways.

In among the throng as we walked to the stadium a couple of hours before kick-off, I was stopped for a brief chat by two Springbok-jersey-clad supporters, who had added scarves and beanies to their match-day garb.

The older of the two gentlemen proudly told me that his son (the other gentleman) had promised him that for his 70th birthday present, he would take him to an overseas Springbok test match of his choice. “I’m so proud of my boy,” he said. “Look at him, staying true to his word no matter what the cost.”

While the result no doubt disappointed them after travelling all that way, I couldn’t help feeling what, regardless of the result, how that time together and the creation of a memory had done for that father-son bond.

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One would have thought that, after a month on rugby tour and the frustration of Saturday’s loss, rugby would have been one of the furthest things from my mind on Sunday. Not so. Looking through the Premiership fixture list, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go to ‘The Stoop’ next to Twickenham to watch the home side Harlequins take on Saracens in a 3pm kick-off.

Plenty of familiar faces, including Schalk Burger, Vintcent Koch and Renaldo Bothma making his first appearance for Quins. There was a lovely moment after Burger made his appearance off the bench when the teams were about to pack down for a scrum.

As they crouched, Burger and Bothma came eye-to-eye and found time for a quick handshake and a smile before clattering in to each other. England scrumhalf Danny Care produced three moments of magic that led to tries and Quins took the lead for the first time in the 79th minute, holding on to win by a point.

My biggest take-out, though? A crowd of not much over 10 000 creating a thrilling atmosphere and environment, something that appears common in the Premiership when viewed from afar on television. That close, almost primal atmosphere adds so much to the quality of the overall product.

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After a couple of days of business in London it is time for home, ready for the Cape Town Sevens this weekend. We followed the Blitzboks’ progress on TV in Wales as they continue to set and raise the benchmark for success in South African rugby.

Skill, pace, fitness, success – there are many things that contribute to their smiles and much to be learned from their world-beating achievements. After two consecutive years as the best event on the Sevens World Series, Cape Town promises to kick on even further this year. It will be epic…can’t wait.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these contributions from afar with some observations away from just the rugby field, and wish you and yours a peaceful holiday season.



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