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Rugby | Springboks

John Erasmus © Gallo Images

Scene of a wild Bok celebration



You’d expect the James Joyce pub to be in Dublin, but it isn’t. It is in fact in Paris, and it was the scene of one of the craziest and most memorable Springbok celebrations since South African rugby was unified in 1992.

Situated directly across the road from the Concorde Lafayette Hotel, which at one point was the regular residence of the Boks when they were in Paris, the James Joyce was conveniently located. It was often a meeting place for Bok management, players after a match, and of course the travelling media.

Although on my last visit there a couple of years back the prices were way too prohibitive for any media person who doesn’t actually own the company he works for, back in 1997 they were reasonable. That may have been a more favourable exchange rate, or it may just have been that those were the rock-and-roll days when we were sent everywhere the Boks went regardless of cost. The expense accounts back then allowed for lavish living.

Those days are no more, and when you are on a tight budget, it just feels idiotic to blow it on one pint of Guinness. Particularly when you know you can head to the Latin Quarter and spend the same amount of money on an onion soup, a confit de canard and a reasonable bottle of wine.

But we’re digressing. Let’s get back to that heady night in November 1997. It had been a horrible year for the Boks. Nick Mallett’s predecessor as coach, Carel du Plessis, presided over a 61-22 win over the Wallabies at Loftus, but a poor run of results before that, the nadir being the series loss to the British and Irish Lions, saw to it that the Loftus massacre was his last match in charge.

That win though was to count towards what was to become a record equalling winning run that spanned 17 matches and was only to be ended over a year later at Twickenham.

By the time the Boks got to Paris that year they had already easily seen off Italy in Bologna and had won the first match of a two test series against France in Lyon. The score there was 36-32, but the Boks gave a hint of what was to come in Paris in a dominant first half where they effectively wrapped up the match. Some late French scores when the game was already won and lost put a false gloss on the French effort.

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There was no false gloss on the match that sparked the wild celebration at the James Joyce. The game marked the occasion of France’s last ever game at Parc des Princes, French rugby’s spiritual home for many decades. The Boks actually did get to play there again 10 years later when the stadium was pressed back into oval ball service at the 2007 Rugby World Cup, but this was officially the last time Parc des Princes was to be used as the home of rugby.

ERASMUS OUTSTANDING

What was supposed to be a French celebration turned out to be a South African celebration instead. The Boks received the usual hostile reception from the French crowd at the start of the game, yet the mood quickly turned. You’d have thought it was the Boks playing at home the way the people on the terraces warmed to their sublime style of play and the ease with which they tore the French apart.

From memory, current Bok coach Rassie Erasmus was particularly outstanding in the 52-10 massacre. Blessed with what in those days were considered unusually good ball skills for a loose-forward, Erasmus was at the fulcrum of everything that went right for the Boks. The French defence just couldn’t cope, and the big score that had threatened in the first half of the match in Lyon became reality in Paris.

So emphatically better were the Boks that it is no exaggeration to suggest that they could even have won by more. Certainly the French fans thought so, and they gave the Boks a rousing ovation at the end of the game.

Mallett, talking to me when I interviewed him a couple of years back for my book on the Springbok coaches, The Poisoned Chalice, told me that before the Boks went out on the town that night - well, they just crossed the road to the James Joyce as it turned out - he addressed the players. Some who were there recall it as a magnificent piece of oratory.

The way Mallett recalled it when interviewed in 2013, the message was a relatively simple one - he told the players that no matter what happened going forward, whatever they went on to achieve as a team, they would always look back on that day with special affection.

“If any two of us happen to run into each other in 20 or 25 years time, no matter where we will be or what we will be doing then, we will be able to look back at this match and, suddenly, there will be a very powerful bond between us. We have shared something very important today. You must all enjoy it.”

They did enjoy it, and so did the management members, those of us rugby media who were present, and many Bok fans who happened to be there. It quickly became a wild celebration and a fan from Durban - he knows who he is - even somehow managed to get stark naked while singing along with the joyous Boks and the other revellers.

After what had come before, the humiliation of losing to the Lions and also the big defeat (35-55) suffered against the All Blacks in the Tri-Nations, that was the night that the turning point for Bok rugby was confirmed. England were to reap the whirlwind a week later, and Scotland the week after that, but Mallett was right - it was that day and night in Paris that 21 years later stands out as one of the most special Bok memories in the 26 years of post-isolation.

Parc des Princes had been a fairly happy hunting ground for the Boks pre-isolation, and generally the South African record both home and away is a good one. Indeed, the Boks have done marginally better in France against the French than they have in South Africa - winning 13 of 19 matches played on French soil since the first meeting between them in 2013, and drawing one. The record in South Africa is 24 matches, also 13 wins, but six losses added to five draws.

AN EMBARRASSING QUESTION

The two previous post-isolation visits to Parc des Princes before that record win had brought mixed results. On the first tour in 1992 the Boks arrived in Paris having been buoyed by an unexpected Naas Botha inspired win in Lyon the week before. It hadn’t been a good tour, the Boks had performed poorly against some of the regional teams, and the management was ill prepared for the challenges of ensuring a smoothly run international rugby tour.

The French had capitalised on the South African rugby inexperience, let’s call it naivety, with the players often accommodated on that tour in out of the way hotels in industrial areas. Think of the suburbs around South African airports, and the hotels you find there, and you have a good idea of what the Boks had to put up with.

Players are often envied for all the travelling they do and the places they get to see, but the reality is quite different. Players share rooms, if you are far from the centre of town it can be difficult to entertain yourselves, and cabin fever quickly sets in, as it did big time on that first post-isolation Bok tour. David van der Sandt, then working as a television reporter for the SABC, became very popular with the players because he had the use of a hired mini-bus, which he used to go and pick up fast foods such as McDonalds burgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken for them.

That may sound an odd thing to be popular for in a gastronomically rich country like France, but the South African players back then weren’t used to travelling in the same way they are now, and they weren’t ready for some of the aspects of touring France that their fans may by contrast have loved.

“If I see another prawn I am going to puke,” said one Bok when the squad got to the port city of Marseille.

The Boks bussed much of that tour, and the way centre Pieter Muller later recalled it, even a relatively short time later it was hard to relate the stories from that tour to new Boks who didn’t experience it.

“From the start it appeared as if there had just been no planning. We were on buses and modern players find it hard to believe we travelled like that so relatively recently,” remembers Muller.

“We would have a function in the evening, the next day we would be up early and on the bus to the next venue, and there there would be a function the night before the game, and we were constantly on the bus. It was a complete culture shock for most of us, and we struggled to adjust to the late-night eating and the three functions we had to attend in every town we visited.”

There shouldn’t have been much complaint about the Bok accommodation on their visit to Paris for the second test. Their hotel, the Pullman Saint-Jacques, was the same hotel that the Boks spent much of the 2007 World Cup accommodated in.

And they didn’t start badly in that test match either. For a while it seemed they might repeat their win in Lyon. The longer the game lasted though the more it became apparent that the French were just slicker, quicker and more efficient than the lumbering South Africans, and the 29-16 scoreline at the final whistle didn’t do justice to the French dominance.

With a test against England looming in a couple of weeks, I thought I’d ask the obvious question of French coach Pierre Berbizier afterwards: “Do you think the Springboks have a chance against England?”

I can’t remember Berbizier’s answer but I can remember the way I was ridiculed by the English scribes present, among them the recent England lock Paul Ackford. I was young then, but the message was clear: What the international press had seen from the Boks that day was confirmation that, as Stephen Jones was later to put it in the London Sunday Times, isolation hammers your game.

BRINGING BACK SOME PRIDE

The Boks were adjusting to international rugby the next time they were in Paris, and had even won a Rugby World Cup, but 1996 hadn’t been a great year for them. Andre Markgraaff was the coach, and he had many fires he had to put out following the controversial decision - actually he was forced to do it, he had no option because of the rebel threat posed by Ross Turnbull’s World Rugby Corporation - by the SARFU president Louis Luyt to award the Boks who won the World Cup lucrative contracts. The money awarded them turned the players into millionaires overnight.

What’s wrong with that? Well, it was a recipe for disaster in a team sport, and Gary Teichmann, who ended up captaining the team after the axing of Francois Pienaar, had every right to ask why Robby Brink, who never played again after the World Cup, was being paid more than he was.

The Boks lost a home series against the All Blacks for the first time ever earlier in the year, and Markgraaff was under pressure when he took his squad to Argentina, France and the UK for the end of year tour. The French test at Parc des Princes followed an impressive win in the first game of the two match series in Bordeaux the week before - from memory Pieter Muller was the stand-out Bok that day - and the Boks were confident they would clinch the series.

They did, but it was mightily close, with the South Africans hanging on at the end for a one point win that put the Boks in with a shout, with one game to come against Wales, of ending a turbulent year having regained some self-respect. They duly beat Wales and the coach, who also made some far-reaching changes on that trip, such as the appointment of Nick Mallett as one of his assistants that swept in a new participatory management style approach, was able to end the tour feeling satisfied. Unfortunately the recovery did not last because controversy was to intervene and put a premature end to Markgraaff’s career. That’s another story and it doesn’t need to be told here.

A STADIUM WITH GREAT MEMORIES FOR THE BOKS

There hasn’t been a particularly memorable test match played between the Boks and France at the new home of French rugby, Stade de France, which was built for the Fifa World Cup in 1998. The Boks, coached by Harry Viljoen, turned in a nondescript performance there in 2001, and the most memorable aspect of the 2005 game, when Jake White’s team lost at the end of a long tour that had also included Argentina, was the snow that fell on Paris on the day of the game.

I was last there in 2013, when the Boks won 19-10, but the memory of that game, apart from feeling like it was happening in the middle of the night, isn’t strong. The Boks did just what they needed to. And you could say the same about last year, when they scraped to a one point win in a game that, to be honest, they never seriously looked like losing.

But of course the Boks haven’t only played against France at the venue, there are also the much more vivid memories of the celebrations that greeted the win by John Smit’s team in the 2007 World Cup final, as well as in the pool fixture against England earlier in the tournament.

One of the big challenges for players, and indeed for anyone else working in rugby, in a game played in France in the modern era is presented by the kick-off time. The late night starts mean a day of what feels like interminable waiting, and it is the abiding memory of the tense wait for that World Cup final. With England having sneaked into the decider, armies of English fans made their way across the channel for the game, and the feeling of being drowned out by the opposition didn't help the nerves of the South Africans. The Boks played in that final as if they felt the tension too.

The regular French games against touring teams kick off even later than that World Cup final did. By the time it is all done and dusted, and you’ve got back to your hotel, it is the early hours of the morning. Meaning there is no time at all for the kind of celebration enjoyed at the James Joyce pub when day games were the thing and beers were affordable in France back in 1997…

Results SA v France in France since 1992

1992 Won 20-15 Stade de Gerland, Lyon
1992 Lost 16-29 Parc des Princes, Paris
1996 Won 22-12 Parc Lescure, Bordeaux
1996 Won 13-12 Parc des Princes, Paris
1997 Won 36-32 Stade de Gerland, Lyon
1997 Won 52-10 Parc des Princes, Paris
2001 Lost 10-20 Stade de France, Paris
2002 Lost 10-30 Stade Velodrome, Marseille
2006 Lost 20-26 Stade de France, Paris
2009 Lost 17-22 Stade Municipal, Toulouse
2013 Won 19-10 Stade de France, Paris
2017 Won 18-17 Stade de France, Paris



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