tour diary – Week 1

Elvis impersonators, hip-hopping All Blacks and the inevitable comparison of rugby to ballet.

In a somewhat subdued build-up to a momentous Test, the spicy moments have been few and far between. On Tuesday, All Blacks assistant coach Steve Hansen had a go at Flip van der Merwe, describing the Bok lock as a yellow-card risk, and Van der Merwe responded on Thursday by saying rugby isn’t ballet. Why do South Africans always resort to this comparison in order to make their point?

I recall somebody from the ballet fraternity throwing down a challenge to Peter de Villiers after the coach made a slight against ballet during the Lions series last year. If you consider that many American football stars experiment with ballet to improve their balance, perhaps the Boks should have taken up the challenge. It certainly wouldn’t have made them any worse.

If the thought of De Villiers in a tutu gets you chuckling, the sight of our national coach in Elvis attire would have had you choking on your cornflakes. A Gauteng paper ran a cartoon on Saturday with De Villiers dressed like the King, singing ‘Don’t be cruel’ to a pack of menacing All Blacks. The cartoon was in reference to a record number of Elvis impersonators attending Saturday’s clash at Soccer City.

It was a day for records as a crowd of 94 000 crammed into the stadium to watch this historic Test. Each patron was handed a flag so as to break the record for waving the most flags at half-time, and each person was allotted a beer in celebration of John Smit’s 100th Test.

The ale would have gone down smooth in the first half when the Boks had the advantage, but by the final whistle, I’m sure the sponsors made more than their money back as South Africans drowned their sorrows following a third consecutive defeat to New Zealand.

The result and annoying sideshows aside, it was a fantastic occasion and one can only hope it’s the first of many. The energy inside the Calabash was indescribable as Smit traipsed down the tunnel, and the emotional greeting he received, well, it’s an honour befitting a man of his achievements.

The singing of the South African national anthem must have intimidated the All Blacks, and Smit said afterward that he couldn’t hear a single word of the haka because of the chanting partisan crowd. This is a special stadium, and the fact that the All Blacks overcame the crowd said plenty for their ability.

What was disappointing was the short supply of Sowetans. Saru needs to ensure there are more locals present in future if they’re serious about developing the game. More local music would have lent the occasion a distinctive Sowetan flavour. Typically, patrons were bombarded with a line-up that was predominantly Afrikaans, some performers singing golden oldies like ‘Sweet Caroline’. You had to keep reminding yourself that you weren’t at Ellis Park or Loftus.

But you know you’re in ghetto when you’re driving through the area around the stadium. Ryan Vrede and I went out to Soccer City to collect our accreditation on Wednesday, and we weren’t fooled by the deserted streets and multiple billboards proclaiming: ‘Joburg, we are ready’. Some of the traffic lights shine both red and green simultaneously, and it’s surprising that there aren’t more fender benders. One traffic light took five minutes to change. ‘Perhaps it ensures hijackers have a decent opportunity?’ Vrede offered. We laughed, but maybe there’s some truth in that statement.

Israel Dagg latched onto a Ma’a Nonu pass and crashed over for the winning try, but not before putting his hand up in celebration. Television replays will confirm that this act of foolishness so nearly led to him dotting down past the dead ball line, and in the aftermath, his team-mates fined him accordingly.

The All Blacks broke tradition by spending the entire week on the Highveld, and even though Graham Henry played down the move afterwards citing the need for 10 days to adapt to altitude, it should become the norm on future tours. In their down time, the All Blacks could be spotted in and around Sandton, signing autographs and eating large quantities of food that can’t be part of a normal sportsman’s diet.

At a restaurant on Nelson Mandela Square on Wednesday, the management sat at a separate table with Henry at the head, while the north island boys faced a television showing SuperSport Blitz. As Jerome Kanio tucked into a heart-attack on a bun, the rest of the players were glued to the screen. The Pierre Spies OUTsurance advert, where the Bok No 8 smashes through walls and roughs up would be car thieves, had them in stitches. Too bad Spies couldn’t produce a performance where art imitated life on Saturday.

The All Blacks are well respected in the South African community, and even their coaches were continuously snapped and pestered for autographs. Strutting around Sandton City dressed like a famous rapper, Piri Weepu was quickly mobbed by kids and adults alike. The tourists made a beeline for the food court and once again experimented with alternative meals. John Afoa polished off a falafel and it was bizarre that the heavy-set Franks brothers were the only players who went for the healthy option of Kauai.

By Jon Cardinelli, in Johannesburg

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