Wednesday 13 November 2019

Springbok shambles sets tone for disappointing day

Postcard from CapeTown: No doubting passion for rugby among locals, but clear need to sell new concept

The near-empty Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth in the minutes before Leinster’s game against the Southern Kings last weekend. Photo: Sportsfile
The near-empty Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth in the minutes before Leinster’s game against the Southern Kings last weekend. Photo: Sportsfile Sportsdesk

"Can I have the bill please? I can't watch any more of this sh*t."

The man on the neighbouring table in Barney's Tavern on the Port Elizabeth seafront had barely finished his breakfast but he had seen more than enough. Less than half an hour had elapsed in Albany, but his beloved Bokke were only going one way.

The rest of the packed bar remained for the duration, sipping coffee and the odd beer through gritted teeth and in stony silence.

Ireland fans know how heavy defeats to New Zealand feel, but experience has steeled them for the experience.

Even then, the 60-0 loss in 2012 stands out as the nadir. YouTube's algorithm seems to think I'd like to relive the Hamilton horror show regularly - proof once again that sometimes the machine doesn't quite get us yet.

So while we can empathise with Springbok fans this weekend, the anguish of losing 57-0 to New Zealand is exacerbated by their proud history and storied rivalry. South African rugby defines itself by its performances against the world champions and after months of progress, Saturday morning's loss was a dramatic fall back to earth.

Pub windows

There may not be any sponsored signs in pub windows to tell us, but this definitively is rugby country.

Don't let the paltry attendance at Leinster's South African debut fool you, the people here care deeply about the game that often defines their relationship with the outside world.

In most parts of South Africa, the black population prefer football, but in Port Elizabeth - and the whole of the Eastern Cape - the oval ball pervades. That's what makes the place so strategically important and it's why they will sink millions into the Southern Kings to make them a viable professional outlet.

Yet the game here is at a low ebb and the reaction to Saturday's defeat to New Zealand was understandably bleak, with the Sunday Times back-page headline simply reading 'Shameful'.

The Boks' decline can be traced back further, but the signs of this current malaise were evident on the last visit by an Irish team to these shores.

A depleted Ireland team should have won the three-match series here in June last year, letting the second Test slip before failing to take their chances in the Port Elizabeth decider.

Allister Coetzee had just taken over from Heyneke Meyer and the team that had taken New Zealand to the brink in the 2015 World Cup semi-final had largely dispersed around Europe for one last pay-day, leaving the coach with a massive rebuilding job.

That series was the beginning of a disastrous 2016 for the 2007 world champions, and the signs of a 2017 recovery have gone out the window as the team are plunged back into crisis.

So, little has changed in the year since my last visit.

Johannesburg remains impossibly hectic and slightly terrifying, Port Elizabeth remains a charming, sleepy and relaxing place to visit, while the first sight of Cape Town never fails to take the breath away.

The second sight takes you right back to earth as the car from the airport winds between slums that stretch as far as the eye can see before the glistening city centre reveals itself beneath Table Mountain.

The local media remains consistent in its reporting of corruption and political in-fighting, and the resultant economic stagnation means that a few euro goes a long way.

It is a complex society, too much for a humble rugby journalist to disentangle, but it is a place worth visiting and despite the teething problems, the Guinness PRO14 has opened it up as a regular destination for rugby fans who can afford the flights.

Selling South Africa as a rugby destination may be the easy part.

Selling the competition to a local populace with little connection to Ireland, Scotland, Wales or Italy may prove a much more difficult challenge.

At a windswept Hobie Beach ParkRun on Saturday morning, the call went out for any visitors and I raised my hand and stated my nationality.

"Good to see you brought the British weather," came the good-natured reply. There was no point in even correcting him.

The vast majority of people here simply don't know who Leinster are. European rugby is broadcast in these shores, but it is viewed by a small and dedicated audience - how many of you still reading have watched more than a few minutes of the Currie Cup games broadcast on Sky Sports?

So, the journey is just beginning and there is a long way to go to sell European rugby in this part of the world.

For the moment, the locals just want their national team to be able to compete with the very best once again. It's hard to know who has the tougher job.

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