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Thursday, January 12, 2006

 

General Discussions: Canadian Rugby Fan Awestruck at Loftus Versfeld

We first published this back on the 8th December, considering how our visitor numbers have increased I thought it would make for a nice read for readers who may have missed the original.

It emphasises the responsibility the administrators in South Africa have to present our rugby in a dignified and unified manner, especially bearing in mind our historical role as one of the two strongest rugby playing nations in history.

It is incumbent on us to set the example and present a hard working, united face to the world. A face in which all South African fans can rest assured that decisions are made in the best interests of South African rugby.

By Chris Bjornestad

October 19, 2005

On the weekend of Saturday, October 15th, one of my dreams came true in Pretoria, South Africa. Along with the Canterbury Crusaders from New Zealand, my favourite professional team in all of rugby, the Blue Bulls, which compete in the Currie Cup competition (and Super 14), played in a nail biting, bone-crushing semi-final against long time rivals, the Lions from Johannesburg. Much to my delight, a friend of mine from Pretoria managed to get tickets.

Though I’d watched Canada play international matches against formidable opponents over the years, including the June encounter in Toronto against Wales, this was my first opportunity to attend a high calibre show-down in a truly rugby-obsessed nation. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect introduction to live pro rugby. Four days later, as I sit at my sister’s flat in neighbouring Mozambique, I can’t help but relive one of the greatest weekends of my life. I decided some rugby fans in Canada, who may just love the greatest game ever invented as much as me, might like to read about the experience.

My dream visit to Pretoria began on Friday afternoon. I was scooped up from the Joberg airport by Shaun, a South African currently visiting family in his hometown, but who now calls Montreal home where he coaches St. Anne de Bellevue RC. We made the short drive back to Pretoria, which is South Africa’s capital for you geographically challenged people. We passed by several large billboards along the highway promoting the Blue Bulls. The local radio stations talked about nothing but the upcoming showdown between the home team and Lions.

As rugby players and fans, you’ll not be shocked that Shaun and I first decided to have a beer on a patio instead of visiting the local cultural sites and attractions in Blue Bull land.


We hadn’t taken two sips from our Castle lagers when one of my favourite players, Victor Matfield, showed up for a quick bite of lunch. For those who aren’t familiar with the name, Matfield is one of the premier lock forwards in the world today and possibly the top lineout option out there, though the Kiwis and some others would zealously dispute this. As a relatively short second row, I must have looked like England’s Neil Back without the muscle (nor the rugby skills) standing beside Martin Johnson as Matfield walked past me. I simply wished the #5 good luck in the match and he responded kindly.

I’ve lived in Canada most of my life and also spent a few years living in the USA. From time to time as most of us have experienced, I would see a professional athlete out in public in various cities across North America. In truth, I was almost indifferent to seeing these athletes who are worshiped by sports fans back home. The big sports in North America are not my cup of tea, though I appreciate the talent, skill and commitment required to play them. Seeing Matfield up close was special. I almost felt like a South African on the inside who was mistakenly born in a country where rugby struggles to keep its head above water among tidal waves of hockey, football and even soccer and basketball. I felt strangely at home where the white population, and increasingly black population, simply love rugby, though soccer is still the most popular sport overall.

Shaun then brought me to Loftus Versfeld where the Bulls would host their opponents the following day. This stadium is holy ground for ruggers in Pretoria and indeed throughout South Africa, and recognized as a bastion of rugby in every top tier nation around the globe. Quite simply, if you want to win in this stadium against the Bulls or the Boks, you’d better bring your A-game, wherever you’re from. Loftus holds about 58,000 fans at capacity, which is inconceivable to a Canadian used to watching international matches at Fletcher’s Field or York University in Toronto with only a few thousand loyal followers. Shaun, who played for the Pretoria RC once upon a time, a club which consistently fields seven or eight sides, actually had the privilege of playing on the main field a few times in his career. He will never forget the experience. We toured the stadium and my eyes were as wide as saucers and filled with wonderment. I saw the Currie Cup up close (behind glass of course). The Bulls won the cup last year so for now it belongs to Loftus. The cup has engravings from top to bottom with the names of winning clubs dating back to the late 1800s. Seeing it made me think of the NHL’s Stanley Cup, which unfortunately hasn’t lived in Canada since 1993. Rugby history, tradition, and pride drip from this stadium. The changerooms are so large that teams can warm up in them and flyhalfs and fullbacks can practice their kicking into nets. Sean told me the field actually slopes downwards gradually (or upwards depending on which direction you’re running). A little known fact to outsiders.

Saturday was game day, as it is in Canada. Tens of thousands of fans from Pretoria and Lions fans who made the trek from Joberg got an early start on the festivities. If you think our neighbour to the south is the only country to have tailgate parties, think again. The tailgater outside Loftus was of a massive scale. I’d never seen anything like it. For kilometres, cars and trucks parked along both shoulders of the winding road leading to the stadium. Hordes of screaming Bulls supporters - young and old, men and women - barbecued sausages and burgers, drank copious amounts of beer and brandy and cokes, chatted with friends and strangers about all things rugby, and heckled Lions fans as they walked defiantly towards Loftus in their red jerseys, proudly waving their own flags. As the ‘visitors’ walked by, Bulls fans yelled: “Are you lost!? You must be in the wrong city!” Cars and trucks carrying excited fans waved blue flags as they passed by. I observed one flatbed truck with a massive paper mache blue bull in it, surrounded by screaming children. The truck passed by us honking several times and the tailgaters went wild with cheers (and a few boos). Though the Lions and Bulls fans are intensely loyal to their teams (and many were three sheets to the wind), there were only smiles on their faces. I didn’t witness any incidence of hooliganism or fighting.

After consuming a few too many Castle lagers myself, we made our way to the stadium. As we entered Loftus, the atmosphere was electric and I knew I was in for a real display of rugby excellence. The match was not quite sold out but an amazing 47 900 fans were in attendance. There was a sea of blue encircling the field with a few pockets of red. There were so many blue flags that they appeared to be floating in the stands, and the cheering was deafening as the opening whistle was about to blow. I was in awe as the Bulls took the field. How often can you see at least ten current and former Springboks in a line-up up of a club team with twenty-two players. Three or four of the Bulls are candidates for IRB Player of the Year – unheard of! The likes of Gary Botha, Bakkies Botha, Richard Bands, Jurie de Preez, Victor Matfield, Bryan Habana and several others. Sadly, one of South Africa’s finest centres who played for the Bulls, Etienne Botha, was killed earlier in the season in a car crash. Botha was an extraordinary talent but somehow never got the nod from the Boks selectors, which I find puzzling.

I won’t devote much space in describing the match because you can read about it on Planet Rugby or other websites, or maybe it was televised back home. I can tell you that I’d never contemplated that a match could be so physical. The commitment to uncompromising tackling was beyond impressive. In the second half, IRB Player of the Year Candidate, Bryan Habana, laid out one of the Lions’ backs in what is undoubtedly the biggest tackle I’ve ever witnessed – live or on television. I’m sure there were more than a few players popping painkillers shortly after the final whistle blew.

Though I’m naturally biased, watching Matfield and Botha in the second row was inspiring – this duo is hard to beat. There was also a memorable ten-point play involving a converted try by the Bulls’ open side flanker, followed by a penalty against the Lions for trying to injure the flanker after he dotted down. The fullback was right on the mark from 50 metres out. In fairness, the Lions played a valiant match – they led at half time and kept the fans on the edge of their seats right to the end. The Lions have a very strong pack and backs who play an expansive game with lots of flair and incredible speed and versatility. It was impressive seeing the Springbok’s fly half, Andre Pretorius, in action for the Lions. He distributes the ball brilliantly, though he had a relatively lack-lustre performance kicking for points. The final whistle confirmed a 31-22 victory for the boys in blue. Needless to say, the local fans were ecstatic.

I won’t describe the post-game festivities and shenanigans out of fear that my parents may read this. Let’s just say I wasn’t the only Bulls supporter who saw the sun rise on Sunday morning. I had the privilege of speaking with a cauliflower-eared man in his seventies outside Loftus who recounted stories from his rugby days as a boy and young man. I also met up with a friend I’d not seen in several years, a Pretorian rugger who played for then North Transvaal years before. ‘Soon’, as he’s fondly nicknamed by friends and family, coached me when I played for Potomac Athletic Club in Washington, DC. Soon played with a lot of legends who suited up for the Boks and he remembers everything about their games. Both men played during an era where referees seldom sent a player to the ‘cooler’ for foul play. When savvy, dirty hookers put Vics Vapour Rub on their eyebrows and ears so the opposing #2 would be virtually blinded in the scrum. They reminded me of ageing and aged Canadian hockey players with whom I’ve had pints in Ottawa pubs over the years. They played in arenas, outdoor rinks and on frozen ponds and lakes many moons ago. Locals who can quickly name their top and toughest players from the NHL, and rhyme off scoring, assist and penalty minute statistics spanning back several decades. Canadians are equally knowledgeable and passionate about our game on ice as the Pretorians are about their rugby.

On Sunday afternoon in my hung over stupor, I had a bit of an epiphany – which is rare for a tight five player who’s sustained a number of concussions. For years I’ve had a dream that rugby will one day become a Tier 1 sport in the Great White North. In my mind, this would be accomplished through developing the game in every sense of the word – providing more opportunities for our young players to take up rugby at an earlier age; increasing expertise and capacity for coaching; investing substantial amounts of money into the sport; forming a professional league when the time is right; determining a strategy for marketing and advertising to get existing and new fans out to local, regional and national matches; tapping into the Canadian media and corporate sponsorship for support. In other words, developing a ‘Culture of Rugby’ in Canada far above and beyond the current fringes.

In reality, we occasionally have our own Currie Cup Semi-Finals when one or more of our Canadian teams go the distance. They’re called the NHL Eastern and Western Conference Finals. I feel proud that we call hockey OUR game, even though I’m not the biggest fan. We have a ‘Culture of Hockey’ that is unrivalled anywhere else in the world. Fans from Victoria to Halifax experience elation when the Canucks, Flames, Oilers, Senators, Leafs or Canadiens go to the conference finals or the ‘Big Dance’ in the Stanley Cup Finals. As adults, we feel and often behave like excited school children in the playground the day of a playoff game and talk about little else, just like in Pretoria during Currie Cup season. We jam our arenas with tens of thousands of people for games as well, wearing our jerseys and waving flags and banners, and celebrate or commiserate over beers at the pub afterwards, depending on the final score.

I will always support the game of rugby in Canada and our national teams – both men and women. The sobering reality is that rugby will NEVER be as big as in South Africa. Will Canada’s Senior Men’s team join the IRB top-ten ranks over the next five years, ten years, even in my lifetime? Possibly, though I have my doubts. My experience in Pretoria last Saturday tells me we will never compete with the South Africans, Englands, Australias, Frances, Wales and New Zealands of the world. Not because we don’t have tremendous athletes, not because we aren’t doing some (not all) of the right things to develop the game. We simply don’t have the necessary rugby culture. I understand that now.

While South Africans live, breathe and bleed green and gold, Canadians bleed red and white. We just bleed for another game, another tradition, another obsession.

In Pretoria, they also bleed BLUE.

Comments:
By the way, for anyone who did read the original, he has kindly updated it for us.  
Rasputin,

I think that article is the best that has been on this site, and it was wonderfully presented. I can assure the Canadian concerned that his thoughts on Loftus Versfeld are not his alone.

The NZ All Blacks have played in just about every top venue in the rugby playing world, but probably the only one they are concerned about is Loftus. I remember when I first saw those huge masses of concrete that I had tingling feelings running down my spine. I also know that the AB's are similarly affected every time they play at Loftus. it is truly a spine tingling, and threatening occasion every time.

His comments about the "boot parties" are timely, as I think that in the rugby world this is something quite unique to SA - long may it continue. A terrific article, we should have more.

Patrick.
 
patrick could not have said it better.  
It could be Eden Park, Rotorua or Loftus, still gives me the chills!

I managed to make contact with him whilst he was still in Mozambique, he was delighted that anyone would appreciate his joy of the day.

That's rugby.

That's why some of my best mates are Kiwis.

We fight on two days a year, when the Boks meet the All Blacks, for 363 days we live in peace and harmony.
 
It works like this,

I support SOUTH AFRICA and then NEW ZEALAND against everyone.

The old foe, at last we are creating that aura again. They've been so dominant against us that we were in danger of losing that aura for ever, the last two years have revitalised the 'auld enemy' factor.

Thank God! Thank God!

For that alone, Jake White is a firking miracle man.
 
I remember a good friend of mine who lives in Pretoria wrote me at the start of the 2005 season and laid his soul right out in front of me. He was really down about the state of SA rugby and had come to the position that they would never reach the top again. I remember writing a commiserating note but saying everyone's turn comes up sooner of later. In this case SA came back better than ever. and hey presto, apart from NZ, you can beat anyone in the world eeeeeeeeeeeeee,

Patrick.
 
I can't find the posting concerning comments I made about the AB's and someone came back and clouted me (yes, yet again) with the fact that SA did us at CT last year. I'm not too sure how long this will be your byword claim to fame, but I think we should clarify the CT game a little closer.

True you had more points on the board at the end, but you had 13 points on us in the first 10 minutes or so - the rest of the game was all ours but we had given away too much at the start. You all condemned Carter as a nothing, but changed your tune when he was declared Player of the Year by two prominent groups.

You also failed to mention that Headmaster Henry admitted that he had made a serious error in not giving many of the players some games before the visit. Some of them had not played any rugby for a month. He made a serious error in thinking that the team could "work up" against the Boks - such folly !

Anyhow fellas, that's they way it was, so let's not hear anymore bragging about how you did us at Capetown. I should also mention that this was the first experience for the AB's with the rush defense, and as everyone knows the AB's can be the worlds worst chokers,

Patrick.
 
Rasputin said...
Patrick,

I've emailed you again. I hope you received my first mails, I know the hotmail thing can be dodgy.

Anyway, I plan to email you again precisely over what you are discussing here.

Our intent here is to present ALL rugby news, without bias, from wherever or whomever, it might come.

We chose to not be prejudicial, biased or xenophobic in what we report.

Comments are obviously a different situation, and as long as it is not racist, bigoted or generally offensive it will not be censored.

That doesn't always suit us, South African rugby or our visitors but it's a small price to pay for at least a limited freedom of expression.

If, and when, it gets out of hand, we will unfortunately have to deal with it.

In the interim, I don't think it is on here that you've experienced the 'viscious hysteria', it might be from the better known SA rugby site?

If it is us, I apologise and know that you accept, in the interests of an interesting and dynamic site, we sometimes let things go past that us, the Founders, do NOT subscribe to.

I trust that if there is anything that is particularly offensive you will bring it to my attention immediatly and I will kill that comment, failing that, post your point on the thread and one of 6 of us will deal with it as soon as we see it.

The bottom line is, Patrick, we have huge respect for our old foes, it is not in our lexicon to insult New Zealanders, beyond normal teasing, and we don't intend to do it.

But, we have to respect the right for our commentators to express their views as well.

It's a hard balancing act, Patrick, I trust you will accept that we have no interest or fortune in insulting the nation we most respect as rugby enemies.

12:12 AM
 
Patrick


I think that beating the best team in the world in a year when nobody else could should be something worth talking about.

No matter what is said, at the end of the day the points on the board are what matter.

And in 2005 only one team could say they had (ONCE only mind you) more on the board than NZ.

Considering the massive burgeoning strength and power NZ has displayed during the whole year it was a damned fine achievement.
 
Firstly I agree with Davids that it was a fine achievement, secondly, the AB's didn't beat us by much in NZ either, but like Ras said, this is a site that supports al views, and what better way to find out what a NZ'er thinks than to have him comment. I must say, I think you're a better guy to post on the NZ option than Tackler!  
Shit I read this thing again. It gives me goosebumps to think that someone outside of SA, looks at Loftus and feels the way he doesn. I work in the Shade of Loftus and it's great to see it everyday when I go work. True Bastion of pride, especially in PTA.  
Guys I don't have an issue with Patrick's views.

I value them and their insight as much as what I value anyone else's.

But the issue is that we should be able to debate the issue and we should accept there are different views and they may lead to discussion...

One of my views on THAT game is that Patrick's theory of the AB's being surprised by The Rush is that it is not a viable theory. I say that because firstly in 2004 the AB's already faced the Rush twice. Secondly the Boks have been using the Rush against all other international teams before that and before that game they had played using The Rush three times against Australia, twice against France and (where they did not have possession for a few seconds) against Uruguay.

Surely the AB's technical analysts would have picked up on that and coached their players on how to deal and cope with it.

If not, then that is a massive failing of the AB technical analytic staff.
 
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