Tour Tales – Johannesburg

JON CARDINELLI reflects on an Irish goal-kicking addict, the blazer-carrying brigade, and the boo boys and girls at Ellis Park.

The reception could not have been frostier at the Springboks’ base in Fourways on Monday afternoon. Myself and colleague Craig Lewis were surprised to learn that it does occasionally rain on the highveld in winter, and that the temperature does drop as low as 5C° during the day.

We were just as surprised to learn that the first Bok press conference of the week would be held outside. Even the Irish journalists – who know a thing or two about low temperatures – questioned the wisdom of it all.

The Bok players looked less than comfortable when training at St Stithians College later that afternoon. Most of the coaches, including Allister Coetzee himself, were kitted out in knee-length coats, scarves and hoods. Respect to the kids and parents, though, who braved the cold and waited until after the practice for the chance to obtain an autograph or selfie.

The Bok press conferences and training sessions have been well attended this past week. The Irish media opportunities less so. Perhaps that had something to do with the South African and Irish press conferences being staged at similar times, even though the teams were based 20km apart. Four rows of chairs were set out, somewhat optimistically, for Ireland’s team announcement on Thursday afternoon. Only a handful of journalists managed to make it.

Nevertheless, Ireland flyhalf Paddy Jackson did have an interesting story to relay. While the rest of the team was out exploring the greater Joburg area or visiting the local lion park on the designated off-day, Jackson was down at Ellis Park practising his goal-kicking. It must be the first time that someone has willingly opted to spend their day off or vacation in Doornfontein.

That said, the inside of Ellis Park is another world. On game day, the 'Dirties' – the non-playing reserves in the Bok squad –  took a stroll on to the field before kickoff to soak up the atmosphere. These players were conspicuous by the fact that they had their Bok blazers draped over their arms, a sign that they are yet to win a Test cap.

It wasn’t long before these players were accosted by the stadium MC, who wanted to ask them questions on behalf of fans at the ground. Garth April tried to sneak away, but was quickly called back. Steven Kitshoff was asked about his fiercest scrummaging opponent, and delighted the Lions-mad home crowd with the answer: ‘Julian Redelinghuys’.

In the buildup to the match, so much was made about the hostile reception the Irish could expect upon arrival at Ellis Park. When I arrived at the ground, it started to become clear that the local fans didn’t mind the visiting players or fans at all.

The South African fans in the crowd added their voices to the rendition of 'Ireland’s Call'. In fact, Ellis Park screamed the lyrics even louder than their Newlands counterparts had done the week before.

If any team felt the wrath of the Ellis Park crowd, it was the Springboks. The crowd grew more and more restless as the first half progressed. When half-time arrived and the scoreboard read 19-3 in favour of the visitors, the South African fans let their team have it with a series of boos.

Of course, it didn’t take long for the partisan crowd to change its tune. The Boks fought their way back into the contest, and with every try, the local crowd started to believe that a comeback was possible.

From chants of ‘Bokke! Bokke! Bokke!’ to ‘Olé, olé, olé’, to a simple cheer whenever the Boks closed in on the Irish line, the Ellis Park crowd certainly upped their game in the second stanza.

Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images

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Jon Cardinelli