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Joe Williams

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Getting immersed in the Lions tour [Jun. 11th, 2009|03:29 pm]
Joe Williams
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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.