Tour tales – London (Week 5)

JON CARDINELLI reflects on a press conference joke gone wrong, tank driving, and the Twickenham gauntlet.

Has Eben Etzebeth heard about the Crowd Goes Wild, the off-beat Kiwi show that pokes fun at players and coaches alike? Apparently not. Etzebeth certainly wasn’t ready for the left-field question asked by CWG’s roving reporter at a press conference held at Pennyhill Park earlier this week.

‘Do you have a nickname, Eben? You remind me of Michael Cera or Sacha Baron Cohen. You know, the guy who played Borat?’

An uncomfortable silence followed. Those on both sides of the journo-player divide shifted uneasily in their seats as all the humour drained from the room.

Some attempted to save the situation. In retrospect, it was this reaction that marked the whole scene as a comedic moment to remember.

‘You know, Sacha Baron Cohen … like Ali G,' said one journalist, who didn’t seem to realise that a British pop culture reference from the early 2000s might be lost on a 23-year-old South African in 2015.

‘He doesn’t have a nickname,’ blurted Trevor Nyakane, who was seated to Etzebeth’s right. The big prop winced as Etzebeth continued to glare at the reporter with the intensity of a thousand suns.

‘His nickname is Eben!’ offered defence coach John McFarland. Etzebeth remain unmoved.

Springbok media manager De Jongh Borchardt tried to bring the matter to a close. ‘Great question. Next, please.’

Etzebeth had the final word, though. ‘Stupid question,’ he snarled.

Hopefully Etzebeth found some time to relax and unwind over the past week. Some of the Boks made use of Pennyhill Park’s nine-hole golf course. At the other end of the activity spectrum was croquet and duck herding.

Imagine the front rankers engaged in a no-holds barred game of croquet, or a scene in which lineout maestros Victor Matfield and Lood de Jager sharpen their organisational skills with a session of duck herding. I’ve no doubt that some have already explored the tank driving option. Perhaps this is how coach Heyneke Meyer dealt with his stress.

The atmosphere inside Twickenham on match day is invigorating. The crowd’s enthusiasm is yet to be curbed by the awful stadium MCs and their contrived pre-game banter. By all accounts, the media has enjoyed the experience, even those who have been forced to sit in the nosebleeds among a group of yobs who routinely spill their beer. At least one journo a day goes home with a laptop bag that smells like the sponsors product.

This is all part of attending a live sports event. No big deal. The row upon row of security, however, drives myself and some of my colleagues crazy.

You can’t get into Twickenham without two forms of accreditation, your grandparents’ birth certificates, and the password to the Mines of Moria. On arrival, you’re forced to run the security gauntlet. First through the yellow jackets, and then through the blues.

It's overcast, but all the yellow jackets are wearing sunglasses. Bag check. Pat down. Accreditation check. Then it's onto the blue jackets some 50m away. Ticket check. A polite request laced with a threat. Welcome to the home of English rugby.

Of course, the atmosphere inside Twickenham is far more festive. There were even a few clamorous moments in the press room in the wake of the the Boks’ narrow win against Wales this past Saturday.

The French journalists who weren’t fortunate enough to be in Cardiff for the France versus New Zealand showdown congregated around a TV. They belted out ‘La Marseillaise’, and voiced their appreciation when Les Bleus got stuck into the All Blacks during the initial stages.

The cheers turned to jeers as the first half progressed. The sight of Julian Savea steamrolling three France defenders, à la Jonah Lomu in the 1995 semi-final against England, was a statement.

‘At least Wales won’t have to face that next week,’ one Welshman said with a humourless chuckle. Indeed, the Boks may battle to contain the All Blacks in the semi-final.

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Jon Cardinelli