REVIEW: Winging it with one of SA's top rugby scribes

Winging it: On Tour with the Boks by Liam del Carme, published by Jacana
Winging it: On Tour with the Boks by Liam del Carme, published by Jacana

Chances are you will find Liam del Carme's Winging It: On tour with the Boks under the travel section of some bookstores.

The cover itself deserves a second take: Is it a crest? Is it a passport? Is it a Springbok?

It is a mash-up of the three.

"The book is not solely for rugger buggers. If you look at the cover it looks like a passport and it also looks like a Springbok emblem. In some ways, it's more of a travel book than a rugby book. I didn't want to write another rugby book, there are four or five other rugby books out now. It was always going to be a different (kind of rugby book)," said Del Carme during a recent promotional tour of the book.

"It's almost more of a travel book than a book on rugby. Some outlets have put them up in the travel section."

And, there are lots of pics of food - after all, as he points out, he is also a tourist and "there would be something wrong if I came away from Tokyo feeling like it was Cardiff".

"That's one way of experiencing the country - through food. It's my obligation to get a contextualised feel, view of any place I'm visiting."

The book also serves as a quasi-tour guide of all the cities Del Carme has visited during a rugby-writing career that has included 23 years of touring - from the "concrete block" that is the River Plate Stadium in Argentina to the behemoths that are Twickenham and Millennium stadiums.

Del Carme said he has been "badgered over the years" to write a book chronicling his adventures on tour.

"I was initially reluctant. 'Who would want to read it, and do I have enough material?' were my initial thoughts."

Having overcome the typical writer's self-doubt, Del Carme has penned what is essentially a fly-on-the-wall (somewhat) no-holds barred account of what life is like on tour as a rugby scribe, the shenanigans of some of his colleagues as well as the antics of some of the players.

The easy-reading but insightful vignettes include a one-Test front row forward who made the rookie mistake of getting parted from his passport; two players swept out to sea on surfboards and Del Carme getting kicked out of a taxi in Wales after arguing with the driver about the route the cabbie was taking.

"I have had 23 years of touring. I first covered the Blitzbokke in Hong Kong. The entire tournament was set up around partying. It was a commitment to partying that I had never seen anywhere before," said Del Carme, describing the beer and food stalls that encapsulated that leg of the Sevens itinerary.  

The book is refreshingly not entirely focused on just his exploits.

"It took me two, three years to write the book. After agreeing to write the book, it took me a month to get started, to understand the process. I had to call up colleagues to corroborate or elaborate on incidents. It's our shared experience and I hope I tell the story as it happened. The book wrote itself."

Del Carme also rang up former Springbok centre now pundit Gcobani Bobo.

"He came over and we chatted about experiences he's had and some of it is candid."

Covering the Boks came with its own rewards and challenges. Different coaches meant a different relationship with the media.

"Coaches and players used to be way more accessible back then. Your interaction with them was on a personal level. As the game became more professional - the demand was to put everything in boxes - it sanitised the situation."

Rudolph Straeuli, for example, viewed the press with suspicion.

"Even if people create a hostile environment, I still do my work," said Del Carme of that particular chapter in Springbok history.

What of the Class of 2019?

"I felt bullish about the World Cup, thought we had a good chance that the Boks would be there and there abouts."

Del Carme recalls what happened after the final whistle. The Boks had won. The English were vanquished.

"After the final whistle, there was no time to jump up and down, it's head down, filing for the front page, back page, analysis.

"After the final, 30 minutes after the last mixed zone closed, they closed the media centre. I was sitting next to the guys from the Irish Times and this bloke came around saying we are closing in 10 minutes.

"I thought: 'Are you serious, we just won the final'. Marcy [his partner] has a video of me walking to the stadium to catch the last train in the dark."

And so, concluded Del Carme's being on tour with the Boks for 49 days.

(The book does not include his experience of having covered the Springboks' 2019 RWC victory but is expected to be included in future editions).

But even without that, Winging It: On tour with the Boks is a delicious fly-on-the-wall, warts-and-all take of what life is like as a rugby scribe, tourist and food enthusiast rolled into one.

Thankfully Del Carme does not pontificate, nor does he view the incidents (depicted with great clarity and (in most cases) hilarity through a judgement-tinted lens.

He just tells the story.

Winging It: On tour with the Boks by Liam Del Carme is published by Jacana Media.

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