Tour Tales – Cardiff

JON CARDINELLI on the Cardiff cauldron, the time stretch, and the Welsh Gandalf.

When I got to Cardiff seven days ago, I was not impressed. It’s not the best place to visit after you’ve just spent a week on the sunlit piazzas of northern Italy. The streets were rain-soaked, the sky grey, and the temperature perpetually on the verge of freezing. Curry is a poor substitute for Italian cuisine, and warm ale no alternative for a fine Veneto blend. The bunk bed in my hotel room didn’t help either.

I had to laugh when a couple of Springboks told me Cardiff is their favourite city to tour. I’ve been here several times before, and always consider a week in Cardiff as hard work.

I had time to catch a movie while I was here, and found aspects of Interstellar completely apt (even though the plot was disappointingly bad). The complex nature of time and space sees Matthew McConaughey’s character missing seven years on Earth for every hour he wastes on the rim of a black hole. I know how he feels. From Monday to Friday this week, time in Cardiff dragged. I could have used the hypersleep.

That was until game day. I always forget how much the Welsh capital transforms in the hours leading up to a big match. Wales is a proud rugby nation, and Cardiff is unique in that the majestic Millennium Stadium is located within the city centre. St Marys Street and Mill Lane comes to life, and on Saturday, the restaurants in this area were awash with green and red, and swarming with fans from both Wales and South Africa.

While the stadium didn’t fill to capacity, the atmosphere under the roof was once again something unique. You just don’t get that singing and chanting anywhere else on the planet. Rugby experiences don’t get much better than a big Test match at the Millennium Stadium. The Wales national team rarely delivers, but the Welsh public never lets you down.

‘I’d tell you, but I’d have to kill you,’ growled Bismarck du Plessis on Wednesday when asked about the proposed changes to the Bok lineout strategy. The journalists laughed in unison. Nobody risked pressing Bismarck for further information, just in case he followed through with his threat. I’m still not sure he was joking. I hope he was joking.

A day later, the mood was very different at the Wales press conference, which took place at a hotel some way out of the city centre in the Vale of Glamorgan. Coach Warren Gatland was brought in to front a rabid clutch of local reporters. Gatland looked old and tired, and not particularly up for a scrap. There were suggestions Wales needed to follow Ireland’s lead if they hoped to down the Boks, and Gatland certainly took a leaf out of Joe Schmidt’s book when he played down the encounter completely.

It was almost like the scene in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, when Théoden's advisors underestimate a haggard and supposedly over-the-hill Gandalf. The wizard enters the great hall doubled over and walking with the aid of a staff. By the time he’s reached the throne, though, he’s risen to his full height and revealed his true power.

There was a touch of Gandalf the White about Gatland this week. On Thursday, he appeared to lack interest in the Boks' game or faith in Wales’ ability. He looked an old man. On Saturday evening, however, he strode into the press conference with a swagger, as if he’d duped the public in a similar way.

Thirty days on, and the Boks’ tour has come to an end. Most of the South African players will fly out of Heathrow on Sunday evening, while a select few will head off to explore the United Kingdom and the European continent.

For myself and the other Cape-based writers on tour, it’s home to the Mother City. No doubt sunny Cape Town will prove the ideal cure after a week in a bleak and chilly Cardiff. However, the memory of Saturday, good and bad, will endure.

Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli