JON CARDINELLI on the Springbok cabin fever at ‘Paarden Island’, the Italian carb culture, and the club-like atmosphere at the Stadio Euganeo.
Travelling from Paris to Padua last Sunday was a taxing experience, even more so after a late, late finish at the Stade de France.
I left my hotel in Porte de Saint Cloud at around nine in the morning. After two metros, an overland train to Charles de Gaulle, a two-hour flight to Venice Marco Polo, a bus ride to Venice Mestre, another overland train to Padua, and finally a record-breaking dash through the narrow streets of the city centre – my taxi driver clearly felt that he was piloting the Millennium Falcon – I arrived at my hotel at around five in the evening.
Italians love an afternoon siesta. As I wandered down towards the Prato de Valle in search of a pizza and a space to work, I noticed that all the shops were closed.
The town began to stir, however, after the church bells signalled an end to the 18th hour. The bars and trattorias on the Prato were suddenly packed with people. The main drag leading up towards Piazza delle Erbe and Piazza della Frutta – sites of the major markets – was flooded with tourists and locals alike.
You eat in Italy – and you eat carbs – whether you want to or not. Any drink ordered at a bar comes with an assortment of snacks.
Olives. Salami. Focaccia. On one occasion, a waiter brought me a ham sandwich the size of a rugby annual. He shrugged when I told him that I hadn’t ordered it. ‘Prego!’ he cheered.
I didn’t dare ask for butter. Apparently people in Italy have been killed for less.
Meanwhile, the Boks were cooped up in their hotel some 10km away from the city centre. Some felt that it was a good thing, as it gave the players a chance to focus on the match against Italy. Others, including myself, felt that the whole setting was a bit soul-numbing.
Views from the hotel included a busy highway and a petrol station. Padua proper – and an opportunity to enjoy the local food and culture – was an €18 taxi journey away. As my colleague Stephen Nell put it, the Boks opted to base themselves in the Italian equivalent of Paarden Island or Milnerton when they had a comparative Cape Town at their disposal.
It’s at times like these when one gets an insight into the Bok camp. There were no coffee shops or restaurants in the industrial area surrounding the hotel, and so my colleagues and I were forced to spend a lot of the time after press conferences in the same space as the players and coaches.
Italian is a challenging language. I overheard Allister Coetzee trying to clarify his coffee order at the hotel bar.
On the same day, Nell made the mistake of asking for ‘a latte’. His face dropped when he received a tall glass of milk.
‘At the very least ask for a cafe latte, Steve,’ said the Boks’ resident coffee expert, Francois Louw, as he passed us in the lobby.
Over the course of the day, we caught sight of Jesse Kriel chasing after Franco Mostert, who for some reason was screeching like a pterodactyl. Oupa Mohoje and Trevor Nyakane went one better – or louder – when they strutted past with an R&B track blaring from a portable device. The next generation of Boks were on show too, with the Vermeulen and Louw kids scuttling across the lobby floor and keeping their parents – and the hotel staff – on their toes.
Fortunately, some of the Boks did get out on their day off. A number of the wives and girlfriends arrived – in good time for Black Friday deals – and trips were organised to nearby Venice and Verona.
After seeing the Avivia Stadium and Stade de France up close, the Stadio Euganeo isn’t much to look at. Indeed, one cannot compare the experience of watching Test rugby at the aforementioned venues – and indeed at the major stadia in South Africa – with a visit to the football ground in Padua.
On arrival, you’re handed a leaflet that lays out a set of rules and laws. However, local journalists, and even the odd member of the Italy management team could be seen smoking a Camel or drinking a Peroni in the press box during the game.
As I said to a colleague, this must have been what it was like to cover live sport in the 1980s. Local fans played their part too, and one is inclined to believe that the haze about the ground during the game was the product of something other than the inclement weather.
There were a few lighter moments after the match. Coetzee insisted that a local journalist answer his phone when it rang at the post-match press conference. The entire South African media contingent was forced to wait out in the rain some two hours after the final whistle for a shuttle back to civilisation.
Perhaps it is different in Rome, but in Padua, getting to and from the stadium requires dedication. Maybe this is why Italy pulled out of the 2023 World Cup bid race at an early stage.
The quest to Cardiff promises to be just as arduous. A taxi, a local train ride, a flight to London Gatwick, a train ride to Paddington, and then a longer overland journey to Cardiff await.
There’s no easy way to access the Welsh capital from this part of the world, though. I’ve heard that some of my colleagues will be flying to the United Kingdom via Paris or Amsterdam.
The next leg of the tour should be interesting. According to those in the know, the week in Cardiff will be Coetzee’s final seven days in the job.
Buckle up, Bok fans, we’re in for an eventful week.