It was less than five hours until the kick-off of the Rugby World Cup final and, not for the first time that week, I had the feeling of being outnumbered (the 2019 World Cup will be featured in a special Freedom Day program on Supersport 1 on Monday starting at 15.30).
Arriving at the Disney themed hotel in the Tokyo suburb of Urayasu where I would spend the night, I’d received a text message. It was a BBC radio station wanting to hear a South African view of what might happen in the grand finale between the Springboks and England at the Yokohoma International Stadium.
As it turned out, the South African view was treated by the interviewer like he was talking to an alien that had just arrived on earth from a foreign planet. “Do you really think the Springboks can win, is that your honest view?” “That’s what I said, it’s a 50/50 game and having spent time around the South African camp this week I am confident they can do it”.
The rest of the people interviewed had apparently given the Boks no chance. The conversation was about how big the England winning margin would be. They were in the same mood as my brother-in-law, an Englishman married to a Scot, had been when he texted me from his home near Aberdeen the night before. The Boks never stood a chance.
At the start of the week, I had encountered similar England incredulity that someone thought the Boks could beat them when I participated in a rugby podcast forum hosted by the London newspaper, The Times. Even sage, wise rugby heads seemed to have been completely seduced by England's compelling win over the All Blacks in the semifinal. To the extent that brains were being distorted. Or was it my brain that was the problem? Time would tell.
As a rugby writer, you see a lot of rugby and it is seldom you get too emotionally involved and too vested in how a game might turn out. You often do have an idea who you’d prefer to win, and if you know one group of coaches or players better than you know the other group of coaches or players, it is natural to feel more for the former group than the latter.
Normally though, it is possible to retain some degree of the neutrality that is required in the job. Indeed, I took it as a sign that I was getting that right when in 2012 many Sharks fans attacked me for being anti their team. Obviously they had no idea about the friendship I had with Sharks coach John Plumtree, who I have known for a long time, and some of his assistants.
A World Cup final is a whole different kettle of fish. There just seems to be so much more riding on the game. The tension wasn’t felt so much in the first World Cup final I covered, the 1995 decider in Johannesburg, just because, to be honest, I didn’t think the Boks had a chance. New Zealand had been the team of the tournament. To me, it was just good that the home team had made it to the final.
In 2007 though, the day building up to the final in Paris that was played at 8pm French time, felt like the longest day of my life. The Boks were favourites and rightly so but everywhere you went in Paris that day there were English fans boldly proclaiming their team would win. England had been horrible at that World Cup, they didn’t deserve to win it, the Boks did, and it just added to the tension.
TRYING IN VAIN TO KEEP THE GAME FROM THE MIND
Perhaps because Siya Kolisi was captaining the South African team, maybe because of what the country had been through in the interim, it felt like there was even more riding on it for the nation in Yokohama.
It didn’t just feel like another rugby game for me and I will admit now that I woke up that Saturday morning feeling incredibly tense. Unlike in Paris 12 years earlier, I was happy for the day to drag, to try and deflect my attention onto something else before rugby became the main business.
I had to change hotels that morning but knowing that a Bok win would probably mean there wouldn’t be much sleep that night, as witnessing the celebrations was what had prompted the change of hotel in the first place, I tried to sleep in. It just didn’t happen. So off I went for a run along the sea front.
What did I think about during that run? In a nutshell, the final. But more specifically, I thought about the England assistant coach John Mitchell. I know Mitch well after having co-written his book, Mitch - The Real Story, and I reasoned with myself that if England did win I could at least feel happy about something, or happy for someone. Mitchell would have a World Cup medal.
But I didn’t want England to win. That would just have been too disappointing for the folks back home who were expecting so much, too much of a deflater for a nation that appeared from afar, as was the case in both 1995 and 2007, to be coming together as a united front.
I left the departure from that hotel to the last minute, still trying in vain to keep the rugby out of my mind. What I wanted to do when arriving at the new hotel, which was astoundingly plush and the room spacious, was just lie on the bed for a few minutes and disengage before starting the train journey that would take over an hour and feature some tricky stops in central Tokyo en route. The radio interview was the last thing that was needed, and it added to the tension.
At the Shin Arayasu station, right at the start of the journey to Yokohama, I bumped into former Lions and Bulls coach Frans Ludeke. Of course, these days he is coaching in that neck of the woods. He was wearing a Bok supporters jersey. It was a good thing to see. And Frans was a good person to talk to. He was confident the Boks would win.
IT TOOK TWO KIWIS TO CONVINCE ME I WAS NOT INSANE
And after making the change at Tokyo Station onto the Shinkansen bullet train, it was also calming to be sitting next to two Kiwis. Their team was out of the tournament, it was obvious they wanted the Boks to win. And they seemed to think they would too. So maybe I wasn’t crazy after all? The BBC radio interviewer had made me feel like I was.
The throngs of people as you reached the station in Yokohama, which was about a kilometre’s walk from the stadium, provided a further calming effect.
There was a big match atmosphere, the England supporters dominated but there were also plenty of South Africans. And neutrals. The place was thriving, people were happy, it was a reminder that this was just a game after all. This was the sort of day that, as a sportwriter, you lived for.
Still, that gnawing tension didn’t go away, and when reaching the press area in the bowels of the Yokohama International Stadium, I was asked for an interview by an English television crew, I politely refused. I just wanted to try and enjoy some personal calm before the game started.
DEALING WITH TENSION
I know coaches who deal with the on-day tension by taking tranquilizers, and on a day like the World Cup final, you can understand it. By no means was I the only journalist in the room feeling the tension of the time building up to the kick-off.
You could feel the tension enveloping the whole media area. For some, it was derived from the pressure of work, and needing to perform in your individual role, deliver in the task that someone has paid a small fortune to send you to Japan to do.
But for many, it was the tension of being as partisan, patriotic and nationalistic as any fan and wanting to see the result that so many back home were banking on. For me, that tension persisted through the minutes immediately before the game, through the singing of the national anthem, and then into the first two or three minutes of the game.
A SCRUM THAT SETTLED SO MANY JANGLING NERVES
I wouldn’t say it disappeared completely, but most of it was swept away by one single event - the first scrum of the match. England needed to be strong in the set-piece if they were going to beat the Boks, and when they were mangled in that first scrum it was obvious to me that they were going to be coming second.
A final demands a certain type of rugby and my pre-match prediction that the Boks would win was predicated on the belief the Boks were a better pack than the Kiwi unit England had faced seven days earlier. The first scrum confirmed that.
Still, the anxiousness didn’t completely go away until that special moment when Makazole Mapimpi went over for his try, the score that sealed the win. And by the time Cheslin Kolbe went in for the second score to put the cherry on the top, I was struggling to balance the excitement that every other South African would have felt at that moment with the need to do what I was there to do - write about it.
TIME TO REPORT FOR WORK
What do I remember of Kolisi and the Boks celebrating immediately after the final whistle? Probably quite a lot if I think about it, but at the same time there was an empty laptop screen and a story to write. In some senses, you could say it was time to report to work, time to put the emotion aside.
That proved a difficult thing to do, but it had to be done. The next few hours were taken up by writing and somehow finding the time to transfer back to Aruyasu and the celebrations at the nearby Bok hotel adjacent to Tokyo Disney. It was all a bit of a blur.
I’d need to go book-length to describe the celebrations, but what I remember most about that heady night is arriving back at the hotel just as the sky was starting to lighten above Tokyo Bay. And thinking to myself that while there was a lot of work to do in the day ahead, and in the 36 hours that remained before the start of the long flight home to Cape Town via Dubai, the Boks were world champions, I had been present to witness something special. And perhaps even more than that, I remember the feeling that I was sorry it had all come to an end.