Saturday 24 March 2018

Bafana roadshow rolls into rugby heartland

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

THE Bafana Bafana roadshow tonight rolls into a stadium synonymous with another sport and the venue for the most dramatic game of last year's British & Irish Lions tour.

Loftus Versveld Stadium is the home of Super 14 champions, The Bulls, and the arena played host to the second test of that adventure, where Ronan O'Gara's last-minute meltdown resulted in a 28-25 defeat for the tourists.

The design of the Pretoria ground is conducive to creating an intimidating environment, with the supporters close to the pitch, in contrast to the vast confines of Soccer City where the hosts opened their campaign with a draw against Mexico last Friday. The venue's capacity is in excess of 51,000.

It is a slightly unusual place for the Bafana Bafana to operate. Pretoria is the administrative capital of South Africa -- with a white population of 28pc -- and is the highest of the major cities.

The Voortrekker Monument overlooks this city, a stone structure which marks the influx of Dutch settlers into this part of the world midway through the 19th century, the precursor to brutal battles with the area's black inhabitants.

Key events in both the first and second Boer Wars revolved around Pretoria, with a young Winston Churchill even spending a period in captivity in the Staats Model School.

Now, the leafy streets are where most of the ambassadors from abroad are based. Rugby is the bread and butter for local sports fans. Indeed, ex-Springbok John Wilkinson, a 75-year-old local, articulated a common perception. "This is a rugby town," he said. "Soccer is for sissies."

He did admit to enjoying the last Bafana Bafana warm-up match before the finals, though, and the stirring nature of the joust with the Mexicans has pricked the consciousness of those who normally turn a blind eye to the fortunes of Carlos Alberto Parreira's side.

There is a special resonance in this encounter taking place on June 16, for it is the anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising when black students rose up against the apartheid government. In their honour, it was renamed Youth Day.

"It is a big day in South African history," admitted Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar. "We want to beat Uruguay and take a step closer to the qualifying stage, and thereby make it a double celebration for the country."

The wellbeing of Pienaar, who has acknowledged to feeling a bit fatigued after a long season, will be crucial to the home side's chances.

Uruguay were dogged enough in their draw with France last Friday, holding on in the dying stages when they were down to 10 men after the dismissal of Nicolas Lodeiro.

Parreira is expected to field an attacking side, with Pienaar stating that they should be more relaxed compared to the Mexican encounter.

The local FA have confirmed that the team shared half a million rand (approximately €50,000) for the goal scored in a drawn game, so the solitary strike from Siphiwe Tshabalala netted them just over 20,000 rand (€2,000) a head.

In the event of a victory, they divide a million rand (€100,000) for every strike in the game.

All the same, they'll need to rack up a cricket score to come away wealthier than some of the residents in the surrounding estates.

Irish Independent

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