| TOUR TALES | Joining fragile Boks … after their ‘Brighton’!

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  • He had his doubters, but Heyneke Meyer came very close to banishing the Brighton horror to engineer RWC 2015 triumph
  • The Boks played some inspiring rugby for several matches in succession after putting the Japan fiasco behind them.
  • Have YOU ever woken to the dubious combined morning sound of a vuvuzela and bagpipes?

My fortnight of following the Springboks at RWC 2015 suddenly got a whole lot spicier, even before I set foot on the London-bound aircraft at OR Tambo International.

Japan ensured that … jeepers, didn’t they just.

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For whatever reason, logistics had dictated that I bypass what had looked a relatively soft opening game for the Boks in Pool B, against the Brave Blossoms in Brighton, and hook up with the national team for the remaining three matches in the group (Samoa, Scotland and the United States in that order).

I could have chosen a two-week pilgrimage nearer the business end of the tournament, of course, but I have always enjoyed the slightly more relaxed atmosphere and gradual build-up phenomenon associated with group play at major team events … plus you can never quite guarantee your team of choice’s presence at the more advanced stages, can you?

What I hadn’t anticipated, of course, was the Boks so inexplicably finding themselves “nought from one” – instantly under heavy pressure not to suffer another pool slip-up – following the biggest upset of their proud history as Eddie Jones’s unheralded charges gave the effort of their lives to pip the superpower 34-32 at the Community Stadium on England’s south coast.

Watching that unforgettable tussle on television as I gradually packed my bags back home, I swear I had seen South Africa deliver worse performances.

Portions of their rugby on that unexpectedly ding-dong day were very good, believe it or not (re-watch the video, trying to muzzle your emotion over the outcome) and they very nearly did enough to eke out the result in their favour against the gutsy, murderously committed underdogs … only undone by the dramatic, sweeping backline move well after the siren that saw New Zealand-born substitute Karne Hesketh squeeze over in the left corner.

Inevitably, of course, the outcome sparked a field day of derision for then-Bok coach Heyneke Meyer from his critics, even if they were overlooking an already noticeably swelling win percentage by the man who had taken the post in 2012 and, if nothing else, worked damned industriously and passionately for the cause.

It had been, in many respects, one of those sporting “lightning strikes”.

While not comparing the two, bear this in mind: even the great Sir Alex Ferguson once presided over a shock 3-0 Manchester United humbling at the hands of then-Division Three York City (in 1995/96), complete with the likes of Messrs Beckham, Gibbs, Pallister, McClair, Irwin and other regulars in his line-up.

But it ramped up the pressure enormously on Meyer – often twitchy with anxiety at the best of times, always wearing his heart on his sleeve – to pull things right in a hurry.

So the air was thick with suspense when I arrived in Birmingham, England’s second-biggest metropolis in the West Midlands, for the big, swiftly-needed redemption drive against the robust Samoans – traditionally not always the most yielding of foes, let’s face it, and just off their own 25-16 triumph over the USA.

My hotel near the city’s canal system wasn’t the worst, and only a five-minute stroll from the Boks’ slightly more up-budget one, although my ground-floor room overlooked the small car park so once or twice in the night I would wake up as vehicle headlamps a mere half-metre from the window briefly dazzled even through the curtains.

Still, I imagine I was probably sleeping better than Meyer, who was making a valiant attempt at media briefings and training to look calm and composed in the lead-up to the clash at one of several converted major football stadiums for the tournament, Villa Park.

To his credit, and to that of the team itself, there was little cause for undue concern as the bounce-back was purposeful and often enough vibrant: the Boks put the islanders away 46-6 and by six tries to nil, including a first-time international career hat-trick to wing stalwart JP Pietersen.

Yet there was also some further, unwanted angst for the SA camp from that fixture.

In the 72nd minute, and not too far away from where I was sitting, captain Jean de Villiers broke his jaw (the extent of the injury was confirmed a couple of hours later) in a violent but accidental collision with a Samoan opponent.

I probably winced with him, as it occurred.

Already renowned, if that is the right word, for his unenviable injury hoodoo at World Cups, De Villiers had bravely battled against time for several months to get himself ready for RWC after what could only be described as his gruesome “knee explosion” – he badly hurt the ankle and hamstring in the process, too – against Wales at the Millennium Stadium the previous November.

It was so typical that that should occur for the player just before the final quarter of the Boks’ very last end-of-year tour game in 2014.

But Meyer had been loyal to De Villiers as his skipper right from his installation to the hot seat in 2012, and patiently waited for (yes, some might argue “gambled on”) the veteran midfielder to painstakingly rehabilitate, against the odds, to be in the frame for the World Cup.

During those tense few months from early 2015 onward, I monitored with a special closeness the progress of the popular figure, visiting him twice for interviews while he underwent those stringently physio-supervised sessions, and even contributing in a small way to a television documentary made specifically on his plucky comeback quest.

Some may disagree, but I thought De Villiers was starting to look tangibly sharper again by the time the Boks closed out the Samoan game … until the completely unrelated, new medical setback he hardly deserved.

The sickening end to his tournament put a severe dampener on the Boks’ otherwise tangible sense of relief and renewed mental buoyancy that night.

De Villiers and his closest mates in the Bok set-up totally deserved to simultaneously celebrate and drown their sorrows just a little, ahead of the onward passage to Newcastle and what had always looked potentially the most taxing group fixture against the Scots.

This was the fixture I was most looking forward to: quite apart from a long-time soft spot for Scotland and its people, the match was set down for St James’ Park, hallowed temple housing my favourite UK football team from the age of 12 – Newcastle United, for my terrible sins.

Once previously, when visiting my in-laws in not too faraway Lincolnshire, I had made the one-day pilgrimage by train to the north-east to specifically visit (sadly out of soccer season) the stadium where I worshipped the likes of Malcolm “Supermac” Macdonald, Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand, David Ginola and Tino Asprilla.

The pleasant, ciggy-wielding stewards, with their baffling Geordie lingo, reluctantly agreed to let the visiting Capetonian go pitch-side … though I wasn’t allowed to touch a solitary blade of grass.

But never in a million years would I have expected my first “live” experience at the headquarters of the Toon Army – I had seen NUFC play twice before in London – to eventually feature the Springboks at rugby instead.

Only making matters more pleasant in the north-east that autumn (it was early October by then) was how sublime the local weather was, rather against the odds: day upon day of stunningly clear skies, mild to warm temperatures and no wind to speak of.

The Boks enjoyed it, too – especially their midweek golf day not too far from the city, when some even returned to the hotel looking tanned.

In the lead-up, and with 38-year-old Victor Matfield labouring with an ongoing dodgy hamstring, Meyer had made a widely lauded choice of soft-spoken No 9 playmaker Fourie du Preez as acting captain in luckless De Villiers’ place.

It was a meeting of the two unbeaten teams in the group after a brace of matches each … and almost a home fixture for Scotland, as Newcastle is not far from the border.

I will never forget waking up unusually early on match-day in my hotel, looking down on a street below in the slight morning mist and seeing the peculiar combination of a Scot with bagpipes and a Bok supporter with vuvuzela – both looking suspiciously as if they hadn’t been to bed yet – providing a slightly jarring musical combo that nevertheless won bemused favour from pedestrians.

That is really what RWC “gees” is all about, don’t you think?

Once again, if there were any Bok butterflies, they did a fine job of burying them: another controlled, professional performance saw them prevail by a very comfortable 34-16 before an atmospheric full house.

The Saturday night in earthy, gritty Newcastle was going to be an interesting one: jubilant Bok supporters and disappointed Scots creating an interesting enough dynamic out on the razzle (though I heard of no bilateral unpleasantness, myself), but also with returning, probably quite peed-off Newcastle supporters joining the mix … from a 6-1 drubbing at the hands of Manchester City that very day.

Ouch, there’d been five goals alone to Sergio Aguero.

Copy filing done, I braved a pub alongside the Tyne very briefly with a colleague, before opting in slightly cowardly fashion for a room-service nightcap and bypassing the possible bedlam.

On the Sunday morning, several of the SA scribes found themselves travelling on the same train as the Bok squad back down to London.

No names, no pack drill, but some players looked more fragile than others; they’d been entitled to let their hair down, fuelled by a strong feeling that momentum was fast being restored to their campaign – the quality English Sunday broadsheets widely confirmed that view.

The Boks were comfortably ensconced in first-class seating; the rest of us were one tier down, and I felt blessed to have a confirmed seat as the carriage – for a nearly four-hour journey – was packed to the rafters, with many poor souls standing throughout it.

As the train got into Kings Cross, I spotted lock enforcer Eben Etzebeth making a bolt for the tube line … and apparently a date to see Arsenal play that afternoon.

A few days followed with the squad basing themselves at a pleasant, Thames-side resort hotel in upmarket Teddington, preceding the pool’s closing tussle (v United States, Olympic Stadium) which we pretty much knew by then wouldn’t present significant problems.

Two days before the match, I had been chuffed when veteran wing legend Bryan Habana responded with considerable candour, length and passion at a routine media briefing, when I probed him on a possible further Bok role beyond the tournament.

Come the contest itself, and Habana duly notched a second-half hat-trick of tries to pull level with Jonah Lomu for most dot-downs registered (15) at World Cups.

The USA were no match for the increasingly smooth-firing, ruthless Boks as they were pounded 64-0 (10 tries in total), an only SA blemish being the post-match ructions caused by an accusation of a shoulder bite – with severely inconclusive video evidence – against Frans Malherbe.

I sent Sport24 a piece quite confidently pointing out the tighthead’s scrupulous fair-play record to that point, and that it would have been extraordinarily out of character. The matter duly died a rapid death.

The Boks ended top of the pool; Meyer was now cutting a smiling, altogether less tense figure and yes, I was pleased for him.

It had been quite a happy little foray on RWC 2015 for me: Boks played three, won three in my time there … 19 tries for, one against.

Talisman? Moi? A part of me certainly wished I was staying on.

It is history now that South Africa progressed onward to a semi-final with arch-rivals the All Blacks before being edged out (deservedly, it must be said) 20-18 at Twickenham as the elements turned more wintry, and then clinching credible bronze in the playoff with Argentina.

Remember this: Steve Hansen’s NZ charges of that period were right at the peak of their powers (stronger than their RWC 2019 troops, I am certain) and amidst a spell of protracted global dominance.

Some people – and they’re quite entitled to, if they wish – will brand me something of an apologist for Meyer. Enough already have.

So be it.

He has been one of the better modern Bok coaches on record (the stats certainly indicate as much, too) and he came much closer than many will concede to masterminding Webb Ellis Cup triumph that 2015 year.

Yes, even after the Brighton bungle which, if nothing else, confirmed that Meyer unquestionably still “had the dressing room” once the shockwaves had settled.

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