JON CARDINELLI reflects on a week that witnessed a hard-running coach, a rugby-obsessed city, and a spin-bowling prop.
When the Springboks are in Port Elizabeth, it’s all anybody can talk about in the trendy cafes on Hobie Beach and in the blue-collar pubs of South End.
‘Did you see the Boks at the gym earlier?’
‘Yup. Just Handré Pollard and the backs, though. Maybe the forwards have the day off. I’ve heard there’s an open training session at the stadium later. Can’t wait to see the boys back in the Bay.’
‘The Wallabies aren’t staying too far away. I saw Israel Folau at Pick n Pay. He’s much bigger in person.’
Port Elizabeth isn’t big enough for one major sports team to fly under the radar, let alone two. It was with no real surprise that I bumped into two sets of players – a clutch of Wallabies front rowers as well as an assortment of Bok players and coaches – at a local steakhouse on Tuesday evening.
The Boks and Wallabies wasted no time in greeting one another. Thereafter, for what felt like a good 30 to 40 minutes, both groups of players posed for photographs with fans who were thrilled to see their heroes in the flesh.
I’ve been on tours to cities like Brisbane where Reds and Wallabies stars walk the streets without being recognised. In PE, however, there’s little chance of an international rugby star going by unnoticed.
‘So you’re a rugby journalist …’ said the waitress, after asking why myself and a couple of colleagues weren’t rushing to join others queuing for selfies. ‘Can you get me and my friend some tickets then?’
The latter had to be the most asked question in the lead-up to the Test at the Nelson Bay Stadium. The game was sold out well before kick-off – although there were some empty seats on the day. The porter at my hotel, as well as a waiter at a popular bar on the Summerstrand beachfront, asked me if I could help them out.
I interviewed Deon Davids for SA Rugby magazine earlier in the week, and as we got up to leave, the Kings coach was accosted in a similar manner.
Perhaps that goes to show how much the people in the Eastern Cape love their rugby. Perhaps it’s an indication of the renewed faith in the Boks following their recent win against the All Blacks in Wellington.
There was a festive atmosphere at the open training session, with the sons of the Eastern Cape – captain Siya Kolisi, no less – receiving a warm welcome after emerging from the stadium tunnel.
Rassie Erasmus was also well received, but then that’s to be expected, given the former Bok flanker grew up in Despatch, some 30km up the road.
Erasmus has been known to take part in certain training drills alongside his players. I remember the days when he was director of rugby at the Stormers, jumping in the lineouts and competing at the breakdown with the aim of illustrating a specific point to this charges.
On Monday, however, even the Cape Town-based journalists who were familiar with Erasmus’ methods were surprised to see the coach coming into the backline, from a fullback position, at pace.
England-based Willie le Roux was still making his way back to South Africa at that point. We joked that Erasmus, ever the innovator, might don that trademark scrum cap once more and name himself at No 15 later in the week.
On a more serious note, we wondered why the Boks needed a police escort to the ground. With Monday being Heritage Day – a public holiday – the streets of Port Elizabeth were deserted. It’s not like the team needed to run red lights to get to the stadium, which doesn’t take long to reach even when there’s a bit of traffic.
Sadly, many of the Wallabies’ media and training sessions clashed with those of the Boks. It’s amazing to note that in a time when rugby is struggling to market itself, and in a tournament that is losing relevance, we still have a scenario in which both teams stage their daily media briefings at almost exactly the same time.
I did manage to get to the Wallabies media conference on Monday, though. Flanker Ned Hanigan and prop Allan Alaalatoa were in fine form. Hanigan, who bears a likeness to Nick Cummins, the self-styled Honey Badger, was full of beans.
Alaalatoa amused his teammate no end when he told the story about how he was christened ‘Allan’ by his father, who is a big fan of the former Australian cricket captain Allan Border. It was a tale Hanigan had not heard before.
Hanigan suggested that Alaalatoa might pass for a decent spin bowler. ‘He can land it on a dime!’ Hanigan chirped, before Alaalatoa spoke about the fierce cricket contests that take place when the Wallabies have some time to kill in the gym.