JON CARDINELLI reflects on a week of smiling locks, speedo-wearing loose forwards, and one fast-bowling hack.
Eben Etzebeth holds himself to a higher standard. Indeed, there was an awkward moment at training on Tuesday when the lock screamed in frustration after dropping yet another kick-off and stormed off the field.
One could forgive Etzebeth for making a few mistakes following an eight-month spell on the sidelines. Handré Pollard, who was kicking the ball towards the forward pod, and Pieter-Steph du Toit, who was closer to Etzebeth, wore expressions that seemed to say, ‘Chill out. Don’t worry about it’.
None dared to placate the big man, though, who took a few moments to compose himself before returning to the field.
Later in the week, Etzebeth walked into a press conference with a smile on his face. ‘I’ve missed rugby,’ he said, when asked about his long injury-enforced absence from the game. ‘I’ve even missed you guys.’
The latter quip set the tone for what was a highly entertaining session.
It’s been that kind of week on tour with the Boks. They’ve worked harder than before on the training field – or at least, by many accounts, harder and smarter than was the case in the past two seasons.
Somehow, they’ve kept their sense of humour. That’s the impression I’ve got when chatting to players and coaches in and around the team hotel in Umhlanga.
One afternoon, the players headed to the pool after a particularly gruelling training session. There were a few laughs when Sikhumbuzo Notshe stripped down to reveal a tight-fitting speedo bearing the South African flag as well as the words ‘Budgie Smuggler’.
It’s been harder to gauge the mood in the Argentina camp. On Monday, five of us made the journey into Durban-proper with the hope of interviewing the Pumas players and coaches after their training session at Glenwood High. As we made our way on to the pitch, we were told in no uncertain terms that filming was not permitted.
We waited and waited for the session to conclude, believing that an interview opportunity would present itself when Pumas coach Mario Ledesma ended the session. Two hours later, a member of management walked across the field and informed us, in English, that there was no one available to translate interviews.
Besides, he said, an interview, would not be possible without authorisation from the Argentina Rugby Union. Since none of us had jumped through the necessary bureaucratic hoops, or indeed had any idea that said hoops existed, we left the field with nothing.
Fortunately, there were a few lighter moments during our vigil on the sideline. Veteran scribe Gavin Rich, a born and bred Durbanite, entertained us with old rugby stories as well as tales of his cricket exploits on the same field.
Craig Lewis, who at 5pm was feeling sorry for himself after missing lunch, couldn’t help but chuckle as Rich began to commentate furiously in Afrikaans. Another reporter from an Afrikaans newspaper, who was witnessing Rich’s one-man show for the first time, raised his eyebrows in alarm.
Without warning, Rich raced towards the cricket pitch. Earlier, he had told us about his five-wicket performance for Northlands against Glenwood in a match played in 1984.
The young reporter’s jaw dropped as Rich flew across the turf. His eyes were ablaze and his right hand slightly raised as he clutched an imaginary Kookaburra. His arm became a blur as he fired a delivery at an imaginary batsman.
At the appropriate moment, he spun round to face us and screamed, ‘Howzaaaaat?!’ A few of the players and coaches stopped what they were doing to consider the man gesturing wildly on the sideline.
‘We’re not with him,’ Lewis shouted at some nearby Pumas players, although he was laughing at the same time.
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