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Lions tour had it all - apart from a series win [Jul. 9th, 2009|02:01 pm]
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It has been a truly unforgettable five weeks in the Rainbow Nation; a country and a test series that had it all. All, that is, apart from a victorious Lions side, but such was the majesty of the series that this underlying disappointment was strongly diluted. Last weekend's superb victory over the Springboks at Ellis Park certainly went some way to soothing the hurt of the first two tests. The Lions showed immense character and played with no shortage of quality, something which has defined the whole tour, giving the fans the ideal platform to celebrate for one final time. And on a personal level, I finally broke my run of Lions test losses (five on the trot before this) - it was bittersweet, but highly enjoyable nonetheless.

This was my second Lions tour, after following the last tour in New Zealand, and the two experiences were very different. The 2005 series in New Zealand is not worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as this chapter in South Africa. That series was almost dead before it begun, and even after reaching the depths of the resounding first test defeat in Christchurch, things proceeded to get even worse. It was embarrassingly one-sided, and apart from world-class individual displays from the likes of Dan Carter, the series was far from memorable. This Lions series, however, roared with drama and excitement from the off (after a slow start in the tour matches), with each test providing new drama and new heroes and villains with every passing minute. In that same respect, the Lions class of 2009 will be remembered by fans far more fondly than the 2005 team. The performances of Jamie Roberts, Brian O'Driscoll, Tommy Bowe (the fans' most popular and sung about player) and the evergreen Simon Shaw filled the red shirt with pride and excellence. The games were a different class, too, perhaps from anything seen before on any Lions tour. The Pretoria test, though it will always be laced with agonising disappointment in my mind, will be the benchmark for test matches in the future. My guess is that it will be a long time until it is improved upon.

The grounds in South Africa were the best I have experienced, usurping the multi-use stadiums of New Zealand. The sun-drenched Kings Park for the first test just pips the cauldrons of Loftus Versfeld and Ellis Park as the number one, but all of them were magnificent combinations of old and new (though it must be said that the latter two in particular could do with some upgrading, as the seats are beginning to disintegrate). Each time you walked up to your seat you just felt the aura of the stadiums, with so much rugby folklore witnessed in these rugby strongholds. The epic battles of 09 will be added to these illustrious lists, which is a testament to the quality of the games. The atmosphere enriched the bricks and mortar, with the home fans extremely passionate, and on the whole, retaining a sense of objectivity. All around the country the South Africans were extremely hospitable to us, especially away from matchdays where occasionally their passion boiled over, and were quick to buy you a drink and discuss the rugby.

The climate here is ideal for a rugby tour, and you could not have handpicked weather conditions more suited to running rugby than those for the tests - warm, still and dry, and firm playing surfaces to boot. South Africa is just a fascinating country, the diversity and culture of the place is something to behold. The country is constantly battling its African status whilst embracing it at the same time - it is paradoxical to the core which makes it what it is.

The ups and downs of the tour have often left my emotions in a spin; I felt privileged to watch the epic tests, but at the same time I have been wondering what could have been. But with time to reflect, I go home with a huge positive feeling about this tour. I leave this tour as I left the last, in huge financial and emotional deficit to the Lions, but I am in no doubt it was worth it; and the planning for Australia 2013 has already begun. The Rainbow Nation has provided me with the fondest of memories of a magnificent country and equally brilliant series.
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Lions supporters deserve more than a dead rubber [Jul. 5th, 2009|12:11 pm]
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 The dreaded dead rubber in the dreaded Johannesburg. It is the scenario all British and Irish fans feared the most; the gloomiest of ends to the most colourful and thrilling of series. Dead rubbers traditionally produce hollow and soulless affiars, removing all the ingredients at the essence of this epic battle between the Lions and Springboks: passion, desire and a relentless will to win. Today's game could defy these norms; there is so much pride at stake for the Lions, with the sporting nadir of the whitewash looming over them like an executioner's blade, which should ensure they come out fighting. The largely unproven South Africa side which has been selected have no shortage of motivation to prove their quality, too. This Lions matchday sqaud have the chance to breath life back into the badge, and the result could have implications far beyond the 80 minutes today. Who knows where the future of the Lions stands after this tour; but for the supporters, I know that the chance to paint the town red in victory and not in sorrow, would mean the world to them.

 

I am starting to think that I am an unlucky charm for the Lions. With fifteen mintues remaining in the second test last Saturday in Pretoria, I thought I was gloriously going to end my agonising four-test winless streak. Instead, with the arrival of Morne Steyn, it moved somewhat inexorably to five, as the local hero dissected the posts with his last-minute kick. Loftus Versfeld played host to another fantastic rugby occasion on this tour, and an epic test match of course, which so agonisingly fell the wrong way in the eyes of the red-clad followers. The Pretoria crowd were certainly a harsher breed than the laid-back, surf-loving Durbanites. Far removed from the carnival atmosphere at Kings Park for the first test, it was like a bull-fighting arena at Loftus (appropriately given that their all-conquering Super 14 side are named the Blue Bulls), with the locals baying for blood.

 

Thousands of Lions supporters have migrated many hundreds of kilometres east this week to the safari haven of Kruger Park, and some even further afield to the beaches of Mozambique. With the oppressing concrete jungle of Johannesburg the only aternative, it seemed the further away the better for the Lions fans. The one saving grace for the city could be Ellis Park, yet another famous ground on this tour, perhaps the most famous of all in the rugby world for staging the momentous 1995 World Cup final. The excitement still stirs inside me for today's game, naturally the fires do not burn so bright as before, but it has been one of those tours, and one of those countries – you just don't know what is around the corner. I am sure the rugby Gods have written another supreme script for this most famous of grounds.

 

In a series which has provided so much drama, this seems a sad way to bring the curtain down on the action. History does not dictate kindly to brave losers – it is all black and white – and a 3-0 loss would not reflect the courage and quality of this team; a Lions win, however, would at least give some reflection of the tightness of this series, and most certainly warm the hearts of the people who are experiencing it in the here and now, living and breathing the tour from the stands.

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Miracles do happen [Jun. 26th, 2009|11:37 am]
A note for the Lions and their supporters: miracles do happen. Yesterday morning, I woke to a thick blanket of snow outside my hostel window. No, I had not escaped to a remote part of Siberia following the bitter disappointment of last Saturday's first test defeat; I was in the heart of South Africa. In the midst of the Drakensberg mountains admittedly, but snow in Africa, even in this region, is rare indeed. “We get a bit of snow here maybe three or four times a year, but nothing like this, and never in my life have I seen any in June,” I was informed by Steven, my 41 year-old minibus driver to Pretoria, a lifelong inhabitant of the Underberg in South Africa's rangy midlands. After the courageous loss in Durban, the Lions have a mountain of their own to climb to keep the test series alive tomorrow, and victory at the fortress of Loftus Versfeld would be seen as equally miraculous in rugby circles.

This week I have lived a distinctly rural existence, enjoying some time in the farming heartlands in the midlands of the country, following spells with the city slickers of Port Elizabeth and Durban. It has been a welcome escape from the growing derision from local fans, and a chance to recharge for the second test after the huge rise – and subsequent fall – in excitement for last week's game. The escape was far from total; the Emerging Springboks game, watched in a local pub in Nottingham Road (rather more picturesque than England's namesake town), sparked noisy celebrations following their last gasp draw. A wonderful trip to Lesotho on Wednesday was shared exclusively with Lions fans, eight in all, but thankfully the South African driver was far more interested in rock rather than ruck formations, so the focus could briefly escape from the rugby.

The occasion at Kings Park certainly did not disappoint. The sea of green and red and the cacophony of noise beforehand was fantastic; a true sporting spectacle. There was a terrific ambiance among the home fans, too, and the car parks outside were teeming with people before and after the game. What a shame the Lions could not match it, with a dreadful opening half which left us up against it for the remainder of the game, and now the series. Official reports from the Durban tourism board reported 23,000 British and Irish visitors in the city, and estimated a total income in the region of $3million(R40m) generated from hotels, restaurants and bars as a result. South Africa were the winners on all fronts on the weekend it would seem, apart from the ticketing, where late returning of somewhat overpriced tickets for the tests from local unions and tour operators left at least a thousand empty seats at the ground. There are still tickets available – an unthinkable concept a few months ago – for the Pretoria and Johannesburg tests.

My friend told me that the swathes of red Lions shirts at Kings Park on Saturday were reminiscent of Istanbul in 2005, when Liverpool-red cloaked Istanbul for the Champions League final. With the final minutes approaching following Mike Phillips' try, I dared to dream that the Lions were going to replicate them on the field with the most unlikely of comebacks. Unfortunately, that proved a bridge too far; but yesterday proved that stranger things have happened than a Lions win in Pretoria. We live in hope.
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Lions Army has arrived in full [Jun. 19th, 2009|02:16 pm]
A 20km drive through Durban’s hectic early morning traffic is not the ideal start to any day. (For those who haven’t experienced it, the driving in South Africa leaves a lot to be desired; it is aggressive, quick and generally causes mayhem – a little like their rugby actually when you look at it like that). I was headed for the airport to return my hire car, and feeling weary after sampling the local nightlife and nervous about incurring fines from notoriously crooked rental companies, my mood was gloomy.

Fortunately, the company representative was happy with the state of Kermit, our garish green Kia Picanto, also nicknamed The Green Machine when in Durban in honour of the Glenwood High School mascot (see previous blog). Not the most masculine car for two men to drive across the country, but like any good tight-head prop, he was solid and dependable. My spirits raised, I headed to the main terminal to catch a taxi back to base, where I was met by droves of Lions fans pouring out of the airport. This of course meant I had to wait a while, but strange as it sounds, I was more than happy to, because it hit home to me at that instant that the Lions play South Africa tomorrow. The Lions army is arriving here in force and no extra charges were acquired on the vehicle; it was, as it happened, a fine start to the day.

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Getting immersed in the Lions tour [Jun. 11th, 2009|03:29 pm]
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Yesterday, until 7.10pm anyway, I lived the life of many a typical young South African rugby enthusiast; which, in reality, is the same thing as many a typical young South African. I spent the afternoon honing my oval ball skills on the training ground before a workout in the gym, followed in the evening by catching a first-hand glimpse of my heroes at the local stadium. At nightfall, once my outlook had returned to being distinctly more British, I was able to cherish an impressive Lions victory after four long years of waiting.

My time at Glenwood High School, in central Durban, courtesy of an old friendship from my own school days, was a fascinating insight into the rugby culture over here. Working with the Under 15 A side for the day, under the tutelage of former pupil turned coach Tyron Hatch, the session began with a game of touch rugby. The youngsters took little time in showing their skills; there were very few dropped passes, a number of deft touches and an overall awareness of space. This was followed by a weights session in a packed gym brimming with endeavour, including some senior players who were simply enormous. Having held my own in the touch game, I was left feeling fairly inadequate in the lifting department compared to these young specimens.

Hatch, 24, told me that this was a "down week for the boys. The season was all structured around the big game last weekend [against Natal provincial rivals, Maritzburg College] so this was a low intensity session for them." They were victorious in the game, propelling them to the top of the national rankings; I was really not surprised if this was considered a low intensity session for 14 and 15 year-olds. All the senior teams and junior A XVs train everyday after academic work has finished at 2.30pm, and Hatch explained that it did not stop there for the most talented pupils. “We have introduced a Glenwood Academy so the elite sportsmen can get some specialist training sessions in; they arrive at 6am, three days a week. So far it has gone really well, with the rugby sides already showing great improvement,” he said. The sheer volume of sport played by many schoolboys in South Africa, harnessed to such a structured training regime, breeds excellence which is subsequently seen on the world stage in the famous green and gold shirt.

Emblazoned on the side of the school building facing the 1st XV pitch is a huge sign which reads: "Home of the Green Machine", accompanied by a picture of their green mascot. Yes, they have a mascot for all their sports teams, by the name of Stormin’ Norman, the giant grasshopper. It is real American high school stuff, and they have the crowds to boot with 15,000 supporters turning out for the major 1st XV fixture recently. They have brilliant facilities, too (the Lions are training here next week), giving up huge acreage to similar English equivalent schools but far overriding them for quality – these school children are effectively living the lives of professional athletes from as young as 12.

Wearing my Lions jersey for the training session sparked a good deal of excitement from the boys for the Sharks game which was imminent. My excitement was also palpable for seeing my first live Lions game of this tour and my first rugby game in South Africa; I was also keen to erase the pain of my last Lions game in Auckland. The famous Kings Park (now renamed the ABSA stadium) did not disappoint as a venue, full of character and oozing with rugby folklore - that drop goal from Guscott, the Springboks securing the Tri-Nations in 2004, Habana’s last ditch try for the Bulls in the Super 14 final to name but a few - along with a fantastic playing surface out in the middle. No wonder there is local uproar at the potential of knocking down the stadium once the new one next door is completed for the FIFA World Cup in 2010. The traditional feel of the stadium is matched by a more relaxed atmosphere to the security, including the old delight of being allowed on the pitch after the game. Reminded of my days of touch rugby after a Wasps game at Sudbury, and feeling youthful after the day at school, I could not resist the chance to dive in the corner and score a "try".

To accompany the game the foods of choice here are biltong, a dried meat which seems to take most of a half to chew - it is growing on me after initial dislike - and like at the cinema, some popcorn. While the rugby last night was not quite box-office, with the Sharks shorn of their stellar Springbok talent, the second-half certainly showed great signs of progress for this Lions team which cannot have been far off the fifteen who will run out a week on Saturday for the first test. Despite the much weakened home side, many locals expected a lot more than just a stoic defensive display from their sacred team. The home fans’ belief that Jean Deysel, the Sharks eightman, is a future Bok in waiting certainly gives some comfort to the Lions being out-manoeuvred at times at the breakdown. Overall, it was an enjoyable first game, and the headlines this morning backed up the feeling that the Lions are gathering the necessary momentum needed for success, with The Herald leading their back page with: "Mighty Lions thump Sharks".

For the last two weeks I now feel I had barely dipped my feet into South African culture and the Lions tour; after yesterday I am fully immersed and eagerly await the trip to Port Elizabeth for Tuesday’s game.
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These Lions can keep the Boks' respect [Jun. 5th, 2009|04:55 pm]
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Rewind four years to a bitterly cold Christchurch and the mood was totally different. I had barely set foot in New Zealand to follow the 2005 British & Irish Lions tour, yet the locals and pundits had already made a few things patently clear: they did not rate the Lions squad, they did not respect them, and they expected to beat them easily. As it transpired, the latter was realised and most disappointingly for Sir Clive Woodward’s Lions, they left the land of the Long White Cloud with as much respect as when they boarded the plane in London: absolutely none.
 
For Ian McGeechan’s charges, the challenge will be to leave South Africa with their respect intact, rather than have to fight to gain it. The most recent series win sealed by Jeremy Guscott’s drop goal in 1997, and the victorious star-studded side of 1974, have left a deep impression on South African rugby followers; respect for the famous red shirt is abundant here. Even the notoriously cocksure and vociferous Capetonians, who I watched the opening game with on Saturday, did not pick holes in the dire display as they had every right to. Instead, they admired the performances of Paul O’Connell and Lee Byrne, and said that they expected there was lot more to come from this team. Fortunately they were hastily proved right after Wednesday night’s incisive display against the fellow Lions of Gauteng, practically wiping the lethargic and lacklustre performance against the Royal XV from memory.
 
Super Sport, the broadcasters who epitomise this rugby-mad nation with a whole channel dedicated to their beloved sport, have shown great enthusiasm for the tour. When they are not showing a repeat of an old Lions tour game or reporting the latest selection news, they run an advertisement with John Smit and his Springbok side staring down a roaring lion, complimented with the slogan: “pride meets pride.” The punditry team, led by the colossal figure of former Springbok second-row Kobus Wiese, who would not look out of place as a bad-guy in a James Bond film, barely suppressed his excitement at the tour getting underway on the weekend. Their disappointment following the match could not be disguised; however, on Wednesday, despite a performance from the home side described as a “disgrace” by Naas Botha, they were clearly impressed and ever so slightly anxious after the British Lions cut the local defence to shreds.
 
Looking back, as much as fans did not want to say it, I think we all knew deep down that the All Blacks would be a class apart from the Lions. South Africa, however, has a different feel; it is 20 degrees warmer for a start, the grounds are firm, and the Lions have a well-balanced squad and coaching team.
 
It was impossible not to admire how the Bulls of Pretoria dismantled the Chiefs in the Super 14 final on Saturday evening, a truly devastating show of the Springbok’s quality which had reporters wincing somewhat especially following the Lions weak start. The locals were purring at the displays of Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and Brian Habana, players they believe to be the best in the world in their position. There is no doubting their excellence, but while it was hope rather than expectation in 2005, this year there is a sense of a more genuine belief amongst the travelling fans.
 
One thing for sure is that the South African public are delighted to have the Lions back; they want revenge after twelve years of waiting, and whilst they are quietly confident of a series win, they do not expect it to be easy. They are immensely proud, but do not share the one-eyed vision of home victory as in New Zealand – they respect us, too. The gloom of the Long White Cloud is behind the Lions now; the Rainbow Nation already looks a great deal brighter. 
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