No such thing as a dead rubber
Sport is an integral part of national identities the world over, but in South Africa it's the national psyche. It's a barometer for the mood of the country, and the subject of constant debate. None of us like losing, but here in Johannesburg, it's not even an option.
I flew down to the South African capital last week to watch the Springboks play the Wallabies in the final game for the home nation of what has been a disappointing Tri Nations by their own, or their fans, own high standards. You see most rugby playing nations would see an away victory over the mighty All Blacks as a huge achievement, but when you then follow that up with losses that relegate you to the bottom of the standings before you've even finished the campaign, people start demanding answers.
"This was meant to be the final today," John Smit, the talismanic captain of the Wallabies, who has been sidelined through injury for most of the tournament, told me ahead of his side's showdown with the Australians on Saturday. "We set ourselves very high standards and second best will not do. I have to go into a room in a minute and get the boys going, I'm still not sure what I am going to say, I've got the Braveheart speech ready just in case, but you know the boos at Durban from the crowd, that's more than enough reason for these boys to play out of their skins today," he explained before heading into the pre-match pep talk.
It was just under a year ago that this same squad of players were crowned the world champions in France, a point that most Bok fans are quick to remind you at any given opportunity. Since then a new coach has been appointed and his desire for his team to play a more expansive game have not exactly gone according to plan. Apart from that win against the All Blacks earlier in the campaign there have been defeats in New Zealand and Australia, culminating in that home defeat to the Wallabies in Durban just a week ago.
That defeat put pay to any title aspirations the Boks had this year, it heaped more pressure on coach Peter De Villiers and his "lady luck" tactics, it gave the fans a chance to vent their anger in no uncertain terms at the end of the match and it gave the media something to moan about all week long. The pressure that these players and their management were under last weekend to make amends was immense. You could see it etched on the faces of each player and team member in the lobby of the Southern Sun's Grayston Hotel in Sandton, where they were preparing for this crucial fixture.
The media were saying it was De Villiers's last chance, the players kept talking about pride and the rest of us were fascinated by this slump from World Cup heroes to Tri Nations zeroes. Fifty-four thousand fans turned up at the cauldron that is Coca-Cola Park - formerly Ellis Park - on Saturday for what was effectively a dead rubber. But with South African pride at stake and answers needed this was the most alive atmosphere you can imagine.
They got their answer. Eight tries helped the home team amass a record breaking 53-8 scoreline against a Wallaby side who had similarly outplayed the Boks just the week before. David Campese said after the match it was "as if the two teams had swapped jerseys during the week". The fans went home more than happy. The management could afford themselves a smile and the players were greeted as heroes on the return to their base.
How much of the victory is down to new tactics and how long the feeling of sporting contentment will last remains to be seen. But for the moment all is well. As I was leaving the hotel the morning after the game I bumped into John Smith and told him to hold on to that Braveheart speech: it obviously works. He gave me the sort of knowing smile that only a World Cup-winning captain can. firstname.lastname@example.org Tom Urquhart is the presenter of Sport Talk on Dubai Eye 103.8, catch him daily between 4-6pm.
Updated: September 1, 2008 04:00 AM