ON TOUR: After a first-class trip to South Africa, and a sample of local wines, the optimism is high, writes RISTEÁRD COOPER
WELL IT might take 11 hours to get to Cape Town, but as soon as you touch down the rewards for making the effort are pretty obvious. Not that the journey was too arduous. Having been booked into economy by our recession conscious production company, my partner in crime, Hector, and I managed to negotiate ourselves a flat bed, lobster salad and bottle of nicely chilled Sancerre in BA Business Class.
Our colleague and director known to us as “Bag-pipes” wasn’t so lucky. An hour into the flight the coast looked to be clear as he took his chance to join us in the sparsely occupied comfort zone. Two Baileys and a powerful sleeping tablet later he was being vigorously shaken from his apparent coma by the irate and oddly purple-faced head cabin steward and was promptly dispatched back to the cold reality of cramped “recession” class.
“This is not the done thing,” he barked in our direction when he came back. Well, that was news to me I must say.
Having arrived here on Monday – the first time ever making the trip to this beautiful and breathtaking spot – the atmosphere and expectation leading into this first Test is electric. Today we make our way to Durban where we’ll undoubtedly strike up a version of the new Lions hit, Tommy, Tommy Bowe to the tune of Daddy, Daddy Cool.
It seems incredible that a player who didn’t make Ireland’s world cup squad in 2007 is fast becoming the star of this tour.
Even this season – especially in the match against the All Blacks when his yellow card offence was largely pointed to as the turning point in Ireland’s loss – would many people have included him in their Lions Test team. Certainly in South Africa they are no longer saying: “Tommy who?”
A noticeable aspect of this experience so far is that South Africans (if not the Kings players) are good sports and are determined to savour some good rugby. Even when Nigel Owens awarded the Lions a dubious penalty-try, the crowd gave out hell for a minute, but then got on with it.
Mind you that was towards the end of a game where the hosts did their best to decapitate several Lions with some shots which were well below the belt.
The common view seems to be that you must win the first Test to have the best chance of winning the series. Hardly rocket science says you, but that was the emphatic view of the enormous, shovel-handed Schalk Burger snr, who we visited at his winery in Wellington (about 85 kilometres north east of Cape Town). He takes up so much space that no matter what he says you’re inclined to agree with him. Sampling some splendid Stilton and a bottle or two of his sumptuous No 6, so-named as a reference to the six varieties of grape and the number on his son’s jersey, he announced in his pronounced Afrikaans accent “If you win the first Test, then you only have to win 50 per cent of the rest of the series”.
Now I know what he meant, but after two bottles of his red stuff I was struggling to work out the maths. With whole sections of the house a virtual shrine to his “laid-back” off-spring – pictures of him in full flight as a teenager for Western Province, receiving the IRB world player of the year in 2004 etc – Burger snr is clearly pretty gutted that his boy will miss the first Test with an “irritating” calf-strain.
Sitting in the Lions corner, I’m afraid I couldn’t quite share his pain.
Of course injuries are as crucial a part of this series as the ELVs and the Lions have endured one or two that they might not recover from. With Hook and Murray the most recent casualties, the loss of Stephen Ferris still looks like the biggest blow.
As Tuesday proved, Nathan Hines was never an option. In fact you could even say that Tuesday was the worst display from a Scot representing the Lions, but that wouldn’t be fair, he’s Australian. Ouch! Only joking Nathan.
The mind games began early on this tour, the constant references of Peter de Villiers and the South African media to the Lions “greats” of the past is bound to be used by “Geech” to stoke the fire in the bellies of the current elite crop. In fact the quiet intensity in Ian McGeechan’s fixed eyes suggest that even the most routine social activity is viewed as potentially life-altering.
“When you go out of this hotel you are representing everything about The Lions. Former Lions, heroes who have forged the reputation throughout the world of what it means to be a Lion. You go out tonight and you walk into a restaurant as a Lion, you sit at your table like a Lion, you order like a Lion and you eat like a Lion. Actually let me rephrase that.”
Whatever he’s saying to them it seems to be working. Let’s hope the “fatties” up front don’t eat up too much ball and the “silkies” at the back get their chance to shine. Prediction? Lions to win a humdinger. The drive to Durban takes a day and a half from here. May the games begin!
source: Irish Times
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