Boks aiming to go home on a high
They arrived in the teeth of a gale at Dublin airport and more than a few of the players found the walk across the runway to the relative calm of the terminal less than pleasurable.
And yet their arrival was the easy part.
While the Australians kicked back and basked in the added bonhomie surrounding Rocky Elsom’s return to these shores, the rather more taciturn Springboks knew the last leg of their air mile busting tour to Europe contained one or two difficult diplomatic obstacles to overcome before they got to Croke Park.
The fallout from the Lions tour has been bubbling away since the summer. Schalk Burger’s eye-gouge on Luke Fitzgerald, followed by the incendiary comments made by coach Peter de Villiers and Burger’s scandalous ban, has meant that more than a hint of cordite has long been in the air ahead of this clash.
Burker takes the field tomorrow, but Fitzgerald’s knee injury has slightly diluted the crackling tension, only to be replaced by the comments Springbok skipper John Smit recently made in his book regarding the Lions’ players refusal to accept the Boks’ invitation for a post-match beer in the changing room.
Smit reckoned the snub was down to a senior Irish player in the squad and though Jean de Villiers, who has been drafted onto the bench for tomorrow, has apparently cleared the air with his now-Munster team mate Paul O’Connell regarding the whole situation being nothing more than a misunderstanding, it has nevertheless added more grist to the mill for tomorrow’s occasion.
You get the feeling the Springboks will not be too disappointed to see the back of this tour, even though they badly want to sign off with a win over the Six Nations champions and get another one over Ireland’s Lions contingent.
It’s been a long and gruelling season which has, of course, brought the world champions ample rewards in the shape of a Tri-Nations title and a series win over the Lions, but the way this jaunt to Europe has panned out has been far from ideal.
First up was the defeat by Leicester Tigers when the dirt tracker squad arrived in England minus the test squad members.
Then, when the heavy artillery came out in Toulouse, they were subjected to their ludicrous reggae anthem — one which Victor Matfield described as a joke that caused embarrassment and hilarity in equal measure — before being turned over by an impressive France.
The defeat certainly grabbed the attention but was hardly that surprising when you consider that the side only arrived in France three days before the test game.
Things hardly improved when the shadow side was again taken down by a Saracens side brimming with psyched up South African exiles after the Boks had taken what seemed like a secure lead.
At least, at that point, the whole squad had managed to come together in London, but it didn’t last with the mid-weekers dispersing the next day while the star names dragged themselves off to Italy where they finally registered a win last weekend.
Then there have been the injuries which have particularly affected the front row with both Leinster’s CJ Van de Linde and Ulster’s BJ Botha, who is now starting tomorrow, receiving unexpected calls from Peter de Villiers to patch up the damaged party.
The list of those apparently unable to train at the start of the week added further fuel to the theory that the Boks are just about holding it together for tomorrow.
Burger had plenty of company on the supposedly injured list with Fourie du Preez, Bakkies Botha, Bismarck du Plessis, Zane Kirchner and CJ Van der Linde all carrying knocks but being ultimately passed fit.
And that’s not all that has afflicted the tourists. Prior to the France test the players discovered that their iconic prop Tendai Mtawarira, otherwise known as ‘the Beast', was facing possible expulsion from the squad in a South African government-sponsored move, due to him not holding a passport from the country he represents.
The motivation for such a move against the Zimbabwean is even more curious as he meets the IRB criteria of having 36 months' residence in his adopted country.
You could hardly blame the squad if more than a little weariness has crept into them.
At least the weather will be better when they get home.