Tour Tales: Birmingham (Week 2)

JON CARDINELLI reflects on a week of sinister seagulls, floating markets and kortbroek tributes.

Like a death in the family. That’s how insiders described the mood on the team bus when the Boks travelled from Eastbourne to Birmingham last Sunday.

Some turned to books and iPads for an escape, others to music. The Boks, as a group, were still in state of shock some 24 hours after their first-ever defeat to Japan.

On Monday, the weather in Birmingham matched the team’s bleak mood. A no holds-barred video review was staged at the team hotel. The group arrived 45 minutes late for their first training session at the University of Birmingham.

Fortunately, there were a few moments of comic relief. On Monday, Bok media manager De Jongh Borchardt was spitting with rage. Borchardt spent much of Monday’s training session on his phone fielding interview requests from British journalists.

Were they asking about Heyneke Meyer’s future job prospects? Did they want to know if Jean de Villiers would be announcing his retirement mid-tournament?

No, they wanted to know about the ‘psychotic’ seagulls and the supposed attack on Eastbourne College, the Boks’ training base in the lead-up to the match against Japan.

An English tabloid alleged that the Boks’ training sessions had been disrupted by – wait for it – ‘dive-bombing seagulls that covered the pitch in poo’.

The tabloid asked, in a provocative Ancient Aliens-type way: ‘Could South Africa's loss be down to a plague of seagulls causing chaos at the Springboks' training pitch?’ The accompanying picture of a particularly sinister looking seagull, mid-squawk, inferred that the answer was a resounding yes.

The report went on to say that a Harris Hawk named George had been deployed to ‘scare the gulls away’. It was subsequently confirmed that all seagulls were evicted long before the South Africans arrived in the seaside town.

'At one point, there was an influx of seagulls and a pest control company was called,’ the school's headmaster Simon Davies said. ‘George was the solution proposed and he proved to be a first class and ethically sound deterrent. The seagulls took one look and stayed away.’

You couldn’t make this stuff up.

No hawks or seagulls were seen at the Boks’ base in Birmingham this week. There were, however, a couple of former South African sportsmen in tow.

Tom Drewett, who played for Eastern Province in the Currie Cup not too long ago, now heads up the rugby department at the University of Birmingham, watched from the sideline over the course of the week. Allan Donald represented Warwickshire Cricket Club for many years. The Proteas legend popped down to training on Wednesday afternoon.

Of course, some wondered openly if Donald was the right man to hand out the Bok jerseys on Friday. After all, it was in Birmingham where South Africa suffered one of their most gut-wrenching sporting defeats. And it was Donald who was involved in the mix-up that led to South Africa losing their 1999 Cricket World Cup semi-final.

‘I hope that’s not a bad omen,’ said Gavin Rich, a part-time rugby journalist and a full-time cricket tragic who hasn’t completely forgiven Lance Klusener and Donald for their sins. Fortunately, it was not.

So, what to make of Brum itself? I suppose the city has it’s own particular charm. The area in and around the canal is rather pretty. Every morning this week started with a jog past the moored houseboats and floating markets. It’s been pleasant, but I wouldn’t go as far to say it's been exciting. Perhaps Newcastle will be better.

As for a rugby vibe, there have been few signs to suggest the World Cup is in town. ‘Rugby? Oh yeah. When does the tournament start?’ one cabbie asked me during the week.

The atmosphere improved on game day, in the designated fan zone and in the city centre, but I fear that after the second and last World Cup match at Villa Park this Sunday, the locals will lose interest completely.

There was another reason for the South African sporting community to mourn this past week after veteran photographer Duif du Toit passed away. Bok captain Jean de Villiers went out of his way to offer condolences at Friday’s press conference. Evidently, Du Toit was held in high regard by sportspeople and colleagues alike.

A few glasses were raised in Du Toit’s honour on Thursday night. On Friday, the travelling media donned kortbroeke in a tribute to Du Toit, who never went to work without them. It didn’t matter whether a game was played in torrential rain or sub zero temperatures. Duif’s dedication to shorts was legendary.

There was another light-hearted moment when the travelling media gathered for a photo at Villa Park on Friday afternoon. Some of the journalists hadn’t got the message about the dress code. That didn’t stop one particularly resourceful individual from making a plan.

This writer managed to a accost a stadium worker who was wearing shorts. The request for a brief clothing exchange proved successful.

The sight of Adnaan Mohamed and said stadium worker stripping down to their underwear in the middle of Villa Park’s west stand had the media in raptures. ‘That’s the real shot right there,’ one of the photographers chirped. Wherever Duif is right now, he’s surely having a good chuckle about it all.

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