Boks in Brum

imageAs the Tour de England rumbled on, I found myself in Birmingham for a Saturday date with my wife, a few Samoans and the entire population of South African West London.

I’d spent the first hour or so having a brisk stroll around pretty Gloucester but on checking my phone for train times I saw there was delays on the line due to vandalism between Newport and Cardiff. Apparently some idiot had thrown a load of metal on the tracks! I decided to get on the earliest train I could and get into Birmingham early. At least by the time I got there, stuff would be open!

There were a fair few Boks on my train, but nothing compared to what my wife was dealing with on her train from Euston!

In Birmingham, I hit the Railway Tavern (sticky floor, looked a bit dingy) for a quick beer followed by another at Cherry Reds (retro, cool, comfy, clean floor!) before meeting my wife. It was almost midday so we headed for some lunch (and more beer, although I was actually struggling!) before checking into our hotel, along with a million more Springboks.

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I’d say I felt bad wearing my Japan jersey, but I really didn’t!

We had a stroll around and then jumped on a train to Witton. The entire carriage was green. Not only the shirts, but the seats were bloody green too. Of course, the always forthright and confident Boks were ribbing me but I gave it back double. I told them I remembered how confident they all were last week…

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Once at Villa Park, a proper old football stadium, we walked around the ground and a Japanese fan stopped me to take my picture. At least I had made one friend amongst the enemy! Not every South African fan was as welcoming as those on the train and a fair few insults were thrown my way. I only know one swear word on Afrikaans and I was close to using it! (It’s the” C word”, by the way, and don’t ask how I know it!)

Inside, the stadium was busy with people watching Italy scrap past a plucky, and unlucky, Canadian team. It’s clear from watching this World Cup that the Tier2 (or 3, if you’re so inclined) nations are closing the gap but time will tell how good this improvement is. A stretch of 4 games in a short period is a test and whilst many of these squads have a decent first fifteen or twenty, the quality in the remainder really thins out. When the niggling injuries and tiredness kick in, combined with some short turnarounds, do these squads have the depth to cope? Not yet, that’s for sure.

On the Italian side of things, I just don’t see any progression from them. I know they’ve had some injuries in their squad, too, but too much of the country just doesn’t care about rugby. It’s a shame, but it’s a fact. It’s a football country. England seems to have a balance with sports and although football clearly dominates, rugby and cricket (especially at international level) hold their own with solid, and growing, fan bases. The fan base in Italy is growing. A few years ago it was unimaginable to think they’d fill the Olympic Stadium in Rome when they left Flaminio but they do, at the moment.

But without an improvement, those fans and their support will wane. When does the time come for the cries for Georgia’s inclusion? Or a 2 Tier Six Nations with one up/one down?

(NB the second scenario will never happen. Imagine if England finished bottom and the money the 6N would lose. Don’t for a minute think England would lose money, the RFU would see to that… Anyway, won’t happen!)

Either way, the closed shop of the Six Nations isn’t helping Italy as there is little incentive to push on. They fought so hard to get there but the sporadic wins aren’t enough to keep them there, in my opinion.

Back to Birmingham, and a mostly Bok crowd was pretty expectant and they got what they wanted and desperately needed. The Samoans played with a great intensity but looked to rush every time they had the ball in hand. By comparison, South Africa looked confident and controlled. I read some comments on Twitter about how they lacked invention in the first half. Without wanting to state the obvious, they’d just come off a defeat to Japan and the first half was about creating a platform and gaining confidence. In the second half, they moved the ball about a lot more and created many more opportunities.

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JP Pieterson scored a great hat trick, Habana ran in a brilliant score at the end and Schalk Burger was immense all day for the Boks. It ended pretty routine but it sounds like injuries have started mounting for them, too.

One of the great things about having the radio/ref-link is hearing the on field conversations. What I noticed most today were two things.

The first was how much the South Africans whined to the referee. At every penalty stoppage, de Villiers was asking Barnes how long until a card came out. More than once, du Preez complained about high tackles and asked Barnes to check the TMO. Barnes’ response was brilliant. He told du Preez that constantly asking wasn’t helping his case and with each moan he was making his case less plausible. Barnes then told him he was better than that and to get on with it. Du Preez shut up after that.

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The second was the questioning from the teams. Players like Matfield were constantly talking to the officials – how’s the line out gap, is the scrum solid enough, what was the penalty for and how do we prevent it next time. The Samoan pack were the same.

Is it a case of whining backs and forwards just getting on with it? It certainly seemed that way today! Just play, SA, you’re good enough!

A quick word on Matfield to finish. He was amazing and twice the player from last week, where even so he was very good. He was controlled, calm and let every inch of his experience tell. When he went off, the round of applause was fully deserved. You can’t help but have a lot of respect for the big, hairy beast!

One thing became evident today about the difference between football and rugby stadiums. Football stadiums just aren’t set up for so much drinking. I didn’t drink much at the match today, but rugby fans drink a lot more at the stadiums than football fans ever will, mostly due to the fact you can actually drink in the stands. As a result, with 10 minutes to go to kick-off the bar queues were packed, the last minute rush for a final four to take to your seat much more interesting to some than hearing their country’s anthem. The guys opposite the aisle from us were clearly drunk before the match started and they went through at least 3 rounds of four beers during the match, probably more! The servers earned their money today!

We got on a train back to the city fairly quickly and soon found a bustling pub for a couple of drinks and to watch some more rugby. It was a weird atmosphere with drunk idiots singing England football chants. We had a great time chatting to a couple of local blokes and a group of girls who clearly hadn’t gotten the memo about rugby being on!

And then the rugby happened. England lost.

(I’ve said from day one I’m not delving into the where’s and what’s of the England squad and selections once the tournament starts and that is the case. There are many things to be said about last night, but you’ll hear them on November 1st, if you care to read them then. For now, I’m writing this blog sat on a train to Leeds to see Scotland v USA, proudly wearing the Rose.)

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