Bokke back with a bang after Villa Park show of strength
Gavin Cummiskey gauges the mood as Springboks roar back to life against Samoa
Samoa’s Viliamu Afatia is tackled by South Africa’s Lodewyk De Jager and Frans Malherbe during the Rugby World Cup Pool B match at Villa Park in Birmingham. Photograph: David Jonjes/EPA
Laager – definition: an encampment formed by a circle of wagons; an entrenched position or viewpoint that is defended against opponents.
“I see you are looking up the meaning of Laaaager there?” goes the South African with media accreditation. He’s doing a decent impression of the local GAA journalist by decking himself out in green and gold.
It means to circle the wagons.
“Ya, at night we would tie the Ox wagons in a circle and put thorn bushes underneath them so no raids could get through.”
Raids from Zulu warriors whose land they encroached.
“That’s how Natal and the Orange Free State were formed.”
Not without a tinge of irony this London to Birmingham Voortrek (12.03pm from Euston station) stalls at Rugby.
“Heyneke Meyer has faffed about too much with this team. Victor Matfield and Schalk Burger are too old,” says a middle-aged shipping contractor from Durban who nonetheless proudly fills his seat and Springbok jersey.
“I’ve been eating sushi all week,” he gives his best Tony Soprano chuckle.
He shows us an SMS from a friend back home: “We’ll smash them.” Them being Samoa but them could be anyone today.
“My uncle through marriage was born in Zambia but raised in Durban,” I mention.
“What’s his name?”
The population is almost 700,000 people.
“Piarsais Kane. He’s originally of Kerry/Laois extraction.”
“Is he Tommy Kane’s brother?”
“I know his brother Hamish too.”
“Seamus!” I go.
“Ya! I know Tommy Kane well. We were both born in May 1953. We drink together in Chandler Tavern. Well we used to. It closed last month. A lot of pubs are closing down in Durban.”
21 rand to the pound I say.
“£5 a pint here, at home I could buy this whole train a pint!”
Telegrams are instantly dispatched to Durban and the Bective Rangers club house. The link is confirmed. Tiny world.
A lady in a Springbok jersey races along platform 14 just squeezing through the doors, flustered, she lights the carriage up with her beaming smile. She made it.
The history of this fixture is discussed. A history of violence. In 1995 Connacht coach Pat Lam claimed he was bitten. There was an accusation of racism. In 2011 Paul Williams was sent off when Heinrich Brussouw collapsed from his slap. In 2013 Adriaan Strauss had his tackle tackled by James So’oialo.
Always brutal, South Africans are giddy about the physicality their Springboks have guaranteed to serve up. They hail from a beautiful, yet hard land with blood red soil underfoot.
The media shuttle bus is late. L’Equipe curses a lot in French about this disgraceful situation (We got “Merde . . . merde . . . merde”) and he eventually hops in a taxi.
That weak Rand keeps the South African media impatiently standing under Birmingham sunshine.
“It’s a bit chilly,” goes one. “Maybe for you Brits it’s a summer’s day.”
We don’t bother telling him about Peaky Blinders. Cillian Murphy’s character wouldn’t stand for this. But it has been a foodless morning.
We lack the energy to be plucky Irish man.
Another is asked about the difficulties caused by the mass exodus of talent to French, English and Irish clubs.
“Ya, it’s difficult but The All Blacks make up so much of what is New Zealand’s identity. If that disappears what have they got?”
Harsh. But they remain their only true rival. And England now they are on their soil.
The bus driver misses the turn for Villa Park. We’re on the M1 now. To London.
“We’ve gone the wrong way!” he shouts to no one in particular. “I’m gonna try and get us back on track.”
His accent sounds closer to Manchester than Brummie. Good thing L’Equipe is gone. Driver gets us there.
The healthy eating project of these past two years ended many days ago. Bread is firmly back on the menu. And pasta. And whatever the World Cup food voucher delivers.
Caffeine injection number five.
There is only one available seat in the media tribune and it’s among the rugby legends hired for ITV’s coverage. L’Equipe is there bemoaning the loss of Gallic flair as the coach he does not name picks big punishing bruisers in the French midfield. L’Equipe has a theory:
Canada are a decent team.
Nah, we interject with with the confidence of a fool, France will put 70 points on Canada. What about last weekend in Cardiff we chirp on.
That’s the caffeine talking. Over my shoulder Philip McKenzie’s try makes it Canada 15-13 Italy. L’Equipe tells Sean Fitzpatrick that France versus Canada will be a game of the utmost significance. We decide to stop talking.
Fitzpatrick and Francois Pienaar are old foes turned golfing pals now the war is over. George Gregan isn’t so small up close. Not Stringer small anyway. He’s mentioning the brilliance of Jarryd Hayne (not Payne), the Rugby League convert to the San Francisco 49s.
Fitzy and Francois are itching to be pitch side.
“I want to look at those South African boys up close,” says the former All Black captain.
I’m sitting beside Gregor Paul of the New Zealand Herald when the stadium announcer goes: “Hands up who doesn’t know the rules of rugby?”
I get moved. Wrong seat.
Villa Park is an intimate old football ground. The Springboks are mere metres away, gently warming up. Lood De Jager laughs as he leaps in the air to take down a Schalk Brits throw. Schalk Burger sees a familiar face in the crowd and waves.
Italy 20-18 Canada, two minutes remaining. I know nothing about rugby.
Defensive lineout drills now. De Jager versus Eben Etzebeth as Victor Matfield drifts onto the first ball carrier. Nothing physical, no real contact.
Full-time: Italy, eh, comfortably banish Canada 23-18.
Handre Pollard kicks off and a sinister veil falls over the field. Joe Tekori, a huge Samoan lock, pads Jannie du Plessis in the chest as if to say, where’s your brother? Etzebeth accidentally walks into Tekori.
A Pollard penalty makes it 3-0. The Laager rolls 20 metres off the restart. Pollard’s penalty puts them back into Samoa’s 22.
They did warn everyone of this return to traditional values.
The first tremor: TJ Ioane meets Adriaan Strauss. Down goes Strauss.
Villa Park has 39,526 souls on site. We hear most of them bay: “Bokke, Bokke.”
These early collisions are carnage. Etzebeth is responsible for much of it. Alesana Tuilagi carries Jean Villiers and Damian de Allende deep into South Africa’s 22. The territory eventually yields a penalty for Ulster’s Michael Stanley to level matters.
“Excuse me what are they screaming?” a French reporter asks.
L’Equipe is at hand to explain: “B-o-k-k-e. And they are not screaming, they are shouting.”
Pollard botches his restart. Samoa scrum, Samoa penalty. Stanley makes it 3-6. No more “Bokke.”
You know Sonny Bill Williams by now, but his Chiefs team-mate and cousin catches a Garryowen over Fourie du Preez and skips past two would be tacklers. Samoa gets an attacking lineout and an intricate move sees Stanley in the outside centre role flinging a skips pass to . . . JP Pietersen intercepts to glide 60 metres and under the posts.
With the sun shining it feels awfully like Ellis Park or Loftus Versfeld.
Pollard, the 21-year-old “future great Springbok,” according to his coach, who had a nightmare in Dublin last November, misses the conversion.
Moments later he stitches a penalty from near halfway.
Jannie du Plessis is down clutching his knee. The ruck collapsed on his right leg. The doctor of medicine and scrummaging recovers to mill the next ruck.
Pollard makes it 14-6.
Inspired by a Nanai-Williams offload to rival anything seen by his cousin, Samoa start playing with abandon. South Africa’s defensive structures make them pay. De Allende in particular.
De Villiers has a try disallowed as touch judge JP Doyle adjudged Willie le Roux’s foot to be over the line.
The Japanese reporter three down the row is roused from his slumber by every line break or bone jarring tackle. “Bokke!” His heavy eye lids lift. There are plenty of these moments so he’s missing out on some much needed beauty sleep.
Finally, it boils over. Etzebeth and Tuilagi swap one inch punches on the ground. Both men come up smiling and talking.
Barnes penalises Tuilagi for “escalating it.” He nearly connected with a head butt. A sequel seems inevitable but never happens (there’s is the warmest embrace afterwards).
Fourie du Preez is still a great player. There’s no specific example, he owns the game he plays in.
Pietersen avoids the sin bin despite making late contact with Tuilagi. Touch judge Graham Hughes recommends a penalty and yellow.
Barnes wants a look.
“You’re getting the penalty but don’t go down that easy,” he tells his old mate Tuilagi (remember the Chris Ashton-Tuilagi brothers feud whenever Leicester played Northampton? Barnes was the one flashing the cards).
Half-time and a wincing Doctor du Plessis needs treatment on that knee.
He returns for more punishment. They all do. That bonus point matters.
Etzebeth is beyond human. The young lock frees his hands to send De Villiers down the left touchline. The attack ends with Barnes saying Le Roux knocked on.
We forgot this is England; Sweet Chariot briefly echoes around the stadium.
Pietersen, who would still be binned, ensures victory when finishing the quickest of hands by Le Roux and De Villiers. Pollard converts from the touchline.
South Africa are half-way to a bonus point so their intensity will only increase.
Did Tuilagi just stumble after being emptied by Burger? “Chest,” shouts Barnes.
The 38-year-old Matfield appreciates the standing ovation as 22-year-old Lood De Jager walks in. His 6 foot 9 inches, 120 kilogram frame makes two dents in the Samoan defence to pave the way for Burger’s try.
Twenty minutes and one more to go for the five points.
De Villiers broke his jaw a few weeks before the tournament. He took a clean belt on it when tackling Williams. He plays on before going for an X ray after (it was the other side of his jaw).
Next a try of beauty gets rubbed from the record books by Barnes; Williams chips Le Roux and after gathering with one hand he feeds Kahn Fotuali’i who puts Tusi Pisi over. Barnes goes to the big screen to confirm the Williams offload is in fact forward.
Of course the bonus point came and through the promised traditional means of a lineout drive with Schalk Brits in the driving seat.
Pietersen squeezes over for a hat-trick at the end but all is not right in the Springbok garden. When De Villiers was replaced by Jesse Kriel the Bokke choose not to rise in unison like they did for Matfield.
Forgiveness for Japan will only be granted when if the wagons journey home on November 1st with William Webb Ellis.
There is one final act of drunkenness that Wayne Barnes handles with poise and class. The Samoans seek to deal with the South African pitch invader but the Englishman says no.
“Scrum. We can’t finish like that.”
Instead we get the wonderful sight of Habana spreading his wings.
“I would like to thank the Lord for blessing us,” says Heyneke Meyer afterwards. “It was a tough week.”