The All Blacks’ game against Munster was a perfect illustration of the argument to reintroduce traditional tours

2008-11-21 00:00

IT is good news that the IRB is considering the reintroduction of “traditional” rugby tours. The demise of these tours is a byproduct of the professional age of rugby. Their loss has been mourned by rugby supporters all over the world. Such tours were a social and commercial godsend to smaller towns, presently denied international rugby, and would be again if a way is found to accommodate them.

Traditional tours gave local rugby players a chance to both play against international teams and to show their national selectors what they could do. As a result, the home teams often played well above themselves, providing many rousing encounters in front of their enthusiastic and wildly partisan supporters. The anticipation of these matches and the buzz of their aftermath gave a life to small towns that nothing else has quite matched.

On the rare occasions when the local team actually won, such matches became part of the folklore of the province or club. The telling of the game would be embellished with the passing of time and the stories told so often that those who were not there began to imagine that they were. It is said that, of the 10 000 Border fans that saw their team beat the All Blacks in 1949, 15 000 are still alive.

Some of these matches became brutal encounters with the local players tearing into the tourists without regard to their or anyone else’s health. I saw the infamous “Battle of Springs” when the British Lions prop John O’Shea lost it in the face of extreme provocation and got himself sent off the field. This was regarded as something of a disgrace in those days when dismissals were rare but, O’Shea never complained.

It was part of the mettle of touring teams that they should stand up to any batterings they received and give as good as they got. In the way that is peculiar to rugby, the rougher the matches the more enduring became the friendships that subsequently developed between the antagonists.

Almost on cue, following the news of the IRB’s desire to recreate traditional tours, came the match last Tuesday evening between the All Blacks and Munster. In a mesmerising encounter that was quite the best match of the northern hemisphere’s autumn season of internationals, the All Blacks won 18-16 in the last minutes of the game.

The match was played before a packed house that lost its voice only when kicks at goal were taken. For a full 80 minutes the two teams went at it with everything they had. The All Blacks, consisting almost entirely of second stringers, were desperate to avoid the stain of defeat, while the Munster team played their hearts out in an attempt to repeat the club’s famous victory over the 1978 All Blacks. In the end it took a piece of typical All Blacks’ brilliance to see their team home, but it was a close run thing that gave huge enjoyment to all those who saw the game.

Afterwards, the crowd stayed put in order to pay homage to the exhausted players of both sides. The teams remained on the field savouring the atmosphere of a rivetting match that had been played with astonishing intensity. It was a match that added fuel to the hopes of those who would like to see traditional tours resumed, if only a way can be found past the obstacles of club obligations and player burn-out.

It was also a match that shamed the pallid performances of the Springboks in their two games against Wales and Scotland. The players have embarrassed themselves on the field almost as much as their eccentric coach has embarrassed himself off it. We now await the England match with some dread hoping against hope that the Boks will play for 80 minutes with the same intensity and guile that saw them home in the World Cup.

Defeat against England would be difficult to accept, but might be tolerable if it spelt the end of Pieter de Villiers’s time as coach of the Boks. Thus far he has little to show from his first season in charge, bearing in mind that he was handed a world champion team in mint condition.

The fault is not his, but that of Saru, who appointed him over men who were far better qualified. Just how they expected an unproven coach to motivate a bunch of highly accomplished rugby players is beyond the understanding of any South African rugby supporter with an IQ greater than his weight.

One noticed that Ian McGeechan and Gerald Davies, the coach and manager of the 2009 British Lions, were present at both internationals played by the Boks.

They must be wondering just how clever their team needs to be to win next winter. On the evidence so far they must be feeling they just need to pitch up with 15 fit players but they know, of course, that a fresh Springbok team will be a different proposition on the highveld.

It is more likely that, deprived of any clues from the Springboks’ play in their first two matches, they will be praying that their luck holds and that De Villiers is still in charge when the Lions get here.

Their best bet would be to ensure De Villiers’s immediate future by persuading the England team to gift the Springboks a convincing victory.

• Ray White is a former UCB president.

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