Tour Tales – Pretoria

JON CARDINELLI on an unflinching tighthead, revitalised veterans, and Graeme Pollock playing in a curtain raiser to a Springbok Test back in 1955.

Frans Malherbe owes his life to a journalist. At least that’s how some tabloids would spin it. Following Wednesday’s team announcement, the burly tighthead sat with the rugby writers in the leafy garden of Pretoria’s Southern Sun Hotel. While Malherbe waxed lyrical about binds and engagements, a malevolent arachnid creeped up his shoulder and onto his exposed neck.

Spinnekop!’ barked one reporter, before moving quicker than Bryan Habana when he’s preparing to intercept. The spider was swiftly deposited into the flower bed, much to the amusement of the media. The would-be hero then pointed out that the last thing Malherbe needed before a Test match was a debilitating spider bite. Malherbe, however, was unfazed. ‘It’s not like I’m scared of them,’ he said with a shrug. Indeed, tightheads probably eat tarantulas for breakfast.

The Blue Bulls have been heavily criticised following an abject display against the Golden Lions, especially by the press in their home town. Coach Frans Ludeke apparently called his charges together the day after the game, and read them the riot act. One Pretoria newspaper subsequently reported that a few of the players were not happy, and that there could be further disappointments to come.

That said, some of the senior Bulls players were in high spirits when watching the Springboks train at Loftus Versfeld this past week. Perhaps the positive energy of the Boks is infectious. Youngsters like Handré Pollard and Damian de Allende have injected new enthusiasm into the side, as have older players such as Bakkies Botha and Juan Smith. The veteran flanker played with a smile on his face this past week, and even though he wasn’t considered for the Test at Loftus, he is evidently elated to be back in the greater squad.

Jean de Villiers is another who is looking revitalised. When I spoke to him last November, on the eve of the Test against France in Paris, he was haggard and spent as a result of a year of non-stop rugby. This past week in Pretoria, De Villiers has been up to his old tricks both on and off the field. From a well-timed chirp to unsettle forwards coach Johann van Graan during a TV interview, to the typically entertaining press conference patter, De Villiers is starting to find form.

When asked about facing an Argentinian pack that was without lineout specialists Patricio Albacete and Maunel Carizza, De Villiers joked about having inside information. ‘Manuel Carizza [who plays with De Villiers at the Stormers] has given me all the Pumas’ lineout calls, so we’re all set.’ The comment barely prompted a titter, and a few of the journalists even scribbled the statement down word for word. ‘You guys know I’m joking, right?’ De Villiers asked hopefully. OK, so maybe it will take a few more weeks before De Villiers is on top form.

Cómo estás, Juan?’ I asked the Argentina and Toulon flanker when we met on the fields of Pretoria’s High Performance Centre. ‘Goeie more!’ Lobbe responded cheerfully. I gave him points for effort, even though a blood-red Highveld sun was setting in the background. But then come to think of it, his Afrikaans is probably better than mine, considering how much time he spends with Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith, and a host of other Saffers at Toulon. ‘They are great players, really hard men,’ he said, not even attempting to hide his admiration. ‘Baie dankie!’ he chanted, when the interview had concluded.

On Thursday, I was in Johannesburg to interview South Africa’s Player of the 20th Century, Graeme Pollock, for SA Cricket magazine. The legendary left-hand batsmen told me that apart from cricket and golf, he has always been passionate about rugby, the Lions (or Transvaal as they were formerly known) in particular.

Now 70, Pollock recalls playing in an U11 match for Grey Primary School in 1955. The game was a curtain-raiser to the fourth Test between South Africa and the British Lions in Port Elizabeth. After completing his own match, Pollock served as a ball-boy in the main event. He remembers every Bok who played on the day. Commenting on the current Bok side, Pollock was interested to see what would happen in the coming clashes between the Boks and the All Blacks. Aren’t we all?

Photo: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images

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