JON CARDINELLI on South Africa’s undercover rugby stars, cold weather to make grown men cry, and the rock-festival atmosphere at the Millennium Stadium.
A light rain was falling as I exited Cardiff Central Station. The wind came at me like Juan Smith at the gainline.
Welcome to Cardiff, I thought, as I dragged my luggage up the wet cobblestones of Mill Lane towards my hotel on the east side of the city centre.
The streets were packed in spite of the weather. Teenagers dressed for a day at the beach staggered about like extras in The Walking Dead. A young girl dropped to her knees and decorated the nearest gutter with what appeared to be fish and chips.
Welcome to Cardiff indeed.
Ten hours earlier, I was in Padua enjoying a breakfast of cornetto marmellata and caffe lungo. As I continued on past the Cardiff Library, my stomach insisted that I forget about the girl and the gutter and seek out sustenance as soon as possible.
The Brits love their curry and Cardiff happens to have one of the finest curry houses on the planet. Veteran scribe Gavin Rich introduced me to a place on Mill Lane on my first tour to Wales in 2008, and I’ve made a point of eating there on every tour since.
After my most recent visit, I’m pleased to report that the decor and service are still laughably bad and that the Chicken Jalfrezi is still ridiculously good.
Myself and my colleagues spent a lot of time wandering the Mill Lane strip and the adjacent walk leading up to the castle. The city centre is small and one couldn’t help but bump into South African coaches and players on a daily basis.
‘May as well enjoy a steak, we’re in Wales,’ said Matt Proudfoot, after I ran into him outside of a local steakhouse. The Sharks trio of Dan du Preez, Thomas du Toit and Louis Schreuder could be seen popping in an out of various restaurants in this area over the course of the week.
Not that anyone knew who they were. Even the local journalists struggled to identify some of the players at the press conferences.
‘Who are these guys?’ one asked me as we studied a team sheet shortly before the announcement on Thursday.
‘Don’t know him. Don’t know him. Sounds vaguely familiar. Never heard of that guy. Ah, yes, Jesse Kriel, he’s alright. How do you pronounce this one? Jee-lunt?’
‘Geh-lant,’ I corrected, in an admittedly exaggerated accent. He thought about giving it a try, and then decided not to.
It’s great to see so many former players and coaches getting in touch with the Boks when they are on tour. Last week in Padua, former Boland scrumhalf Polla Roux served as the team liaison and translator at the post-match press conference at Stadio Euganeo.
This week, Newport-based South Africans Brok Harris and Zane Kirchner came through to pay their respects to former teammates and coaches. Both are currently playing for the Dragons.
It was a strange week as far as the mood in the camp is concerned. Allister Coetzee looked nervous when he entered the press conference on Monday. He laughed, though, when he was asked whether he was speaking to the Canon Eagles about a move to Japan.
Otherwise, it’s felt like a long goodbye of sorts. Johann van Graan and Brendan Venter left the group a fortnight ago. Coetzee and company could leave the Boks in the coming weeks.
I was pondering this while filing an Eben Etzebeth story from the hotel lobby on Friday afternoon. Etzebeth had glowered throughout the captain’s press conferences in Dublin, Paris and Padua. On this occasion, however, he had come across as relaxed.
I was interrupted by a voice behind me.
We turned to see SuperSport commentator Matthew Pearce, who had just arrived in the Welsh capital. Tears were streaming down his face.
‘Are you alright, Matt?’ I asked. ‘Surely things can’t be that bad with the Boks?’
‘No man, it’s not that,’ he responded with a chuckle. ‘I walked up to the hotel in this wind. It’s freezing outside!’
We found that out for ourselves when we popped outdoors for the team photo. It’s been chilly this week in Cardiff. Indeed, you had to feel for the players who weren’t training at the Cardiff Arms Park on Monday.
Handré Pollard, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Steven Kitshoff and several others sat at the top of the grandstand wrapped in winter gear like South Park characters. Kitshoff resembled Kenny McCormick with his hood pulled closed.
The team photo was something else, though.
‘Vinnig, mense, vinnig!’ chanted Coetzee in an attempt to hasten the whole process.
Wilco Louw, however, didn’t appear too bothered by the temperature or the icy wind sweeping across the square. The tighthead got to the shoot five minutes before anyone else and was one of the few who didn’t sprint back to the hotel afterwards.
It was a lot warmer under the roof of the Millennium Stadium on match day in terms of temperature and mood. The Welsh, more than any other nation in the rugby world, know how to put on a good pre-match show.
Credit must go to the band and choir for setting the tone. That said, the relatively small group on the field still counts on the thousands out in the stands to play their part. And on Saturday, 65,000-plus did exactly that when singing ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’, the Welsh national anthem.
How could the home team not be inspired after that performance? Even after spending four weeks on tour, and after visiting incredible cities like Dublin, Paris and Venice, the journey to Cardiff was rendered worthwhile and significant by the unique atmosphere in and around the ground before kickoff.
While the Boks have now lost their last three matches in the Welsh capital, the Millennium Stadium remains a must-see for any rugby fan seeking a spiritual sporting experience.
‘Please come back. We’re still trying to make up for the 96-13 defeat [against the Boks in 1998].’ one local scribe joked afterwards.
He wasn’t happy, though, when I reminded him that the Boks would have surpassed the 100-mark if Naka Drotske hadn’t dropped a pass late in that game.