JON CARDINELLI on rugby banter at the Sacre Coeur, an emotional farewell, and an impromptu interview with a Springbok player in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
The manager of Au Cadet de Gacogne was adamant: France could not afford to lose to the Boks at the Stade de France after such a poor calendar year.
‘The media will murder the French if they lose! They’ll kill them! Guy Novès will be history!’
The Americans marching across Place du Tertre glanced towards my streetside table in concern. I thought it would be impolite to laugh at my new friend, so I offered him a nod before shoveling another spoonful of beef bourguignon into my mouth.
More tourists were beginning to filter into the area after visiting Sacre Coeur and admiring the Parisian sunset. Instead of accosting people and exaggerating the quality on his three-course formule, the manager continued to rant about the problems facing French and South African rugby.
‘I was at the 2007 World Cup final,’ he told me. ‘We don’t talk about what happened in the semi-final [when England beat France], but we still remember when the Boks beat the English! That was a great day.
‘The Springboks are in trouble these days,’ he said with a wave of his hand. ‘That South African side in 2007 was magnifique. Look at the team today: There’s no Schalk Burger. There’s no Juan Smith, no Victor, and no Bakkies. France have problems, but so do the Springboks.’
Indeed, 10 years after that World Cup triumph, and it’s fair to say that the state of South African rugby is tragique rather than magnifique.
The Boks trained at one of the grounds used by Stade Francais this week. While the pitch was in superb condition, the grandstand – which still bears the logo of the 2007 World Cup – had seen better days.
A few of the South Africans who play for Stade made their way down to Bok training on Tuesday, while other France-based Saffas – like former Bok prop Gurthrö Steenkamp – could be seen mixing with the visitors at the team hotel. Morale has been low this week, and the coaches and players would have taken all of the support that they could get.
On past tours, the travelling media couldn’t help but run into one or a whole group of Boks at famous landmarks and popular restaurants. When South Africa were in Paris in 2013, myself and a colleague bumped into Jaque Fourie at the Eiffel Tower. Jan Serfontein was spotted around the Louvre and several more players endeavoured to ride the metro and experience all sorts of aspects of local life.
The Boks have been keeping a low profile on this tour, which is unsurprising given their recent results. One would hope that they got out a bit over the past seven days and partook in what Paris has to offer. After all, these tours to France only come round once every four years.
Three days after arriving in Paris and it was time for a brief visit to London for the 2023 World Cup host candidate announcement. The French journalists were out in force at the event. The gentleman seated next to me whistled ‘La Marseillaise’ when the decision was confirmed while some of his countrymen were less subtle, chanting ‘Allez Les Bleus!’.
The Boks refused to show any bid-related disappointment when fronting the media in the days that followed. The emotion in the camp was patent, though, after assistant coach Johann van Graan handed out the match jerseys on Friday afternoon.
‘It’s very special,’ Van Graan told me, as he watched the players take their places for the official team photo. Then he was called on to join the side for the second shot.
Afterwards, many of the players sought out Van Graan to shake his hand. Most of the senior players – like Eben Etzebeth, Duane Vermeulen, and Francois Louw, who have worked with Van Graan since the start of the 2012 season – waited until the rest of the team and most of the media had left before they paid their respects. Clearly Van Graan will be missed by the Boks when he goes to Munster to replace Rassie Erasmus as head coach.
Watching rugby in France is always an interesting experience. While the Stade de France wasn’t at capacity this past Saturday, the partisan French fans that did trek out to St Denis made their voices heard. The performance of the fans was well and truly superior to that of the home team.
Traveling home from the Stade de France can be a less enjoyable experience. The post-match press conferences usually kick off at around midnight, while the subsequent player interviews start at 00:30. What typically follows is a mad sprint to the station as local and foreign journos alike try to make the final train heading back into central Paris.
Due to a breakdown in communication, myself and the other South African writers on tour missed the post-match player interviews as well as the last train. As we climbed into a taxi, the Bok media manager contacted us to ask if we would still like to interview a player over the phone.
And so it was that we came to chat to Duane Vermeulen about his first Test for the Boks since June 2016. For the three of us, the interview began in the back of an Uber and ended on a street corner outside my hotel sometime after 01:00. The driver didn’t seem overly impressed and I would be surprised if he gave me a single star in the passenger ratings.
A few hours later, I popped across to the local boulangerie for my last croissant and café creme. The owner had chatted to me about the game and the World Cup bid earlier in the week. He couldn’t resist a chirp as I asked for l’addition one final time.
‘The Springboks deserved to win last night,’ he said. ‘But if you think about it, France have already claimed the bigger victory by getting the 2023 World Cup.’
Sadly, I think he may be right.
Photo: David Davies/PAImages/Getty Images