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Perceptions, permutations, and a little perspective

When I booked my Rugby World Cup trip in early 2021, I was heartbroken. The Springboks still hadn’t played a game since the RWC 2019 final, and there was huge uncertainty surrounding the British & Irish Lions series – at the time, no one was even sure it would happen, never mind whether fans would get to use the tickets we’d been so excited to secure. Even the domestic Rainbow Cup was in complete disarray because of COVID infections and restrictions. I spent a cumulative eight hours ‘queuing’ on the RWC ticketing website with absolutely no joy. And so, because really, there is no joy without rugby, I just decided that I didn’t care what it would cost, I was booking a supporters’ package for the first three pool games through a travel agency, and I would figure out the rest of the details later.

Fast forward to today, and obviously that trip is over, and so is the pool stage for the Springboks. My dire case of the post-holiday blues is not exactly helped by the fact that there’s no Bok game to look forward to this week, as we await the outcome of the Ireland v Scotland game to determine our fate, but I guess it’s a good opportunity for reflection.

Perception is a funny thing. When I was planning this trip, I was more than a little apprehensive about how I would manage in France, given that I don’t speak French, and they have a reputation for being unfriendly and even rude. My experience once I was there couldn’t have been further from that. So many people told me to speak Afrikaans, and then the French would speak English to me. Maybe that works, but I opted to learn some basic French instead (and I mean really basic – like the absolute bare minimum, which mostly fell out of my head as soon as someone spoke to me). With the exception of one waiter in Toulon, who walked away from me, never to be seen again, as soon as I asked, in French, whether he spoke English, everyone else was lovely. So lovely, that I’d almost be okay with them winning if we can’t. I spoke my terrible French, they tried to respond in varying degrees of broken English. We made it work. There were lots of comfortable silences. And some hilarious disjointed conversations about rugby. A friend of mine who lives in Paris had also told me that the French consider it really rude if you launch straight into what you want, rather than observing the conversational niceties first. And really, what could be more South African than that? When last did you manage to tell the woman from the call centre that you’re not interested in buying insurance, without first going through a five-minute discussion of how you are, the weather, and the current loadshedding stage? We’re a nation of people who stop and greet each other on the street, who chat to the cashiers in Woolies, and who almost always observe the rituals of courtesy when we say hello. That little bit of common ground made all the difference to the way I was received in France, I’m pretty sure of it.

The perception other fans have of Bok fans is a funny thing too. At the hotel in Marseille, a Scottish man went to great pains to tell me that South Africans are really obnoxious and arrogant when it comes to the Springboks – which he quickly amended to exclude me, of course (I think his wife was kicking him under the breakfast table). And you know, I almost understand why he thinks that. We love the Boks with all our hearts, and we do it loudly. We believe in them fiercely, which means we believe they can win every game (it doesn’t actually mean we always believe they will, or that they can’t be beaten…in truth, many of us are in a constant state of anxiety…). We take everything to do with the Boks (way too) seriously, making us prone to hyperbole and overreaction, but we also bring our trademark ability to make a joke out of everything to our love of rugby…something fans of other nations don’t always recognise. Everything to do with the Springboks is personal for us. Some of us, usually those who are loudest on social media, take it too far, blame the ref, abuse the players, vilify the coaches. Those people are genuinely in the minority, and every nation has them. The rest of us just love this sport, really love our team, and feel pure joy when the Boks are doing well, and despondency when they’re not. And I’d guess that the fans of most other teams feel pretty much the same way. That’s why, when we’re all in the stadium, and not trying to verbally one up each other on social media, we find we have common ground.

But this isn’t just about a magical French holiday, and what some guy said to me in a hotel in Marseille. Obviously, all that really matters is the rugby, and needless to say, being in the stadium for the first three pool games was phenomenal. You get the sense, though, that Rassie and Jacques were still tinkering with the team during those pool games. Marseille itself was manic – a port city with an almost feral energy, where we watched the opening game between France and New Zealand, then watched the police rush in to break up a huge brawl (between French fans, go figure), and I left with numerous inexplicable bruises, probably from the scrum to get to the bar and bathrooms. Our game against Scotland got off to an equally unsettling start. The heat and humidity in the stadium were brutal, and I came close to fainting at one point (saved by a fellow South African who braved the relentless bar queue to buy me water), so handling conditions were obviously tough. Still. It was a little closer than we’d have liked to begin with. The way the Scottish fans around me celebrated their team winning two scrum penalties tells us everything we need to know about the respect there is for our forwards.

Onto beautiful Bordeaux, which was a much more chilled weekend for me, and probably for the Boks too – Romania put up a valiant fight, and their fans were incredible, but it went the way we expected it to. Albeit with four scrumhalves in the Bok team. So not entirely what anyone would expect, then. Rassie and Jacques can’t help themselves. But surely the experimentation and tinkering would stop ahead of the biggest match of the pool stage. Surely not. And I’m not even talking about the 7-1 split bomb(squad)shell. I was high, high up in the nosebleed seats of the magnificent Stade de France, which makes it hard to see the finer details of the game, but it was clear that we were not sticking to our usual strategies, and were mixing things up a bit (and by a bit, I mean a lot). A team heavily weighted towards the forwards, and then we put them to use far less frequently than we usually would, opting to kick for poles instead of the corner, and barely setting up any opportunities to attempt a maul try. So that was strange. And of course, Manie had a bit of a ‘mare from the kicking tee, but that is something that is fixable (and he was sublime against Tonga). All credit to the Irish, who played a phenomenal game, and to their supporters who came out in their legions and sang their hearts out. But South Africans definitely walked away from that game feeling like the coaches were still using their opportunities to test out a few new strategies. The fact that it’s left us in a position where we now have to wait on the results of Ireland v Scotland before we know if we’re definitely in the quarters makes me almost as anxious as the claustrophobic nightmare of trying to get through the crush in the station and onto a train after leaving Stade de France. Almost.

Of course, I wasn’t in the stadium for the game against Tonga – I was nursing my FOMO in my local pub, and wishing I was back in France instead. The injury to Mapimpi was another awful blow in what has been an unusually attritional World Cup. I don’t know that we’ve ever seen so many key players from multiple teams ruled out by injury. It was a far more stressful game than anticipated, with the Tongans absolutely relentless in their physicality. They’re a team you can’t help but admire because they just never give up. And now we wait. And obsessively consider the permutations, which frankly are giving me a headache. A healthy dose of perspective is probably in order, since the odds of Scotland beating Ireland in such a way that we get knocked out are fairly slim – it should be a more nervy wait for fans of those teams than it is for us. Nevertheless. I think I’m just going to listen to World in Union on repeat, and fret for the rest of the week.

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