This morning we packed to leave Gemini and debated causing a scene over our remaining balance of what we had payed for our accommodation, but conveniently the man we would need to speak to was gone for the morning. Very unsatisfied about our stay up to that point, we decided to get on the road to Witbank, where the Test Match between Italy and the Springboks would take place. Skipping the cold breakfast that was served at Gemini (perhaps due to the frequent power fluctuations?) we headed to Rosebank mall where we had eaten our post game meal from the previous night. We found our restaurant, Nino’s, to be bustling with leople, so we decided to pop in and give their breakfast menu a go after last nights dinner had turned out quiet well. It turned out to be the best breakfast we have had since our return to South Africa. Mugg and Bean no long is top as they’ve suffered a bit of a let off since we were here in 2007. Great eggs, and carne in their omelets. WIll definitely try to go again if we find another.
We set off east towards Witbank and arrive just before 2 in the afternoon. We want to track down a top for Alisa, as she had hesitated on getting a Springboks kit when we first arrived, and now the match is upon her and the surprisingly warm temperatures, means that wearing my fleece is not yet an option. For some reason all the shops in Witbank close are 2pm, and the Mall was dark and deserted at 1350. Decided to head towards the stadium, and found a mess of cars spread out all over much as we have for our World Cup matches, but with more disarray. It seems that it is only the United States that builds massive parking lots for their sports arenas, as the South Africans just take over the local neighborhoods, parking on the grass, the curbs, and even the medians in the middle of the street. And of course the ‘car watchers’ are out in full force to take advantage of all the white Afrikaners, and we are told when we pull up on a curb that it’ll be R50 to park. I thought that was a steep price (especially considering this guy didn’t OWN the land we were parking on, it was just the fee we were paying to make sure our car wasn’t stolen/broken into/disappeared, etc. I would very much like to run a study to see if the fee you pay your car minders does anything to thwart crime, but it’s a cultural norm in this country to pay the person who watches your car when you park to enter malls, restaurants, etc. When we were here before, there was a great debate for how much you tip/pay, as some South Africans use this as a way to get rid of their cent coins (varying in denominations that are worth >1-7 US cents), though we had usually paid R4-5. So we were obviously getting the rugby rate for today’s match, and I negotiated it down to a more reasonable R30 (4 USD), and hoped the car would be there on our return.
As we started to make our way into the stadium, Alisa and I both realized that we should have perhaps brushed up on some Afrikaans, as no one around us was speaking English. This changed as we got closer to the stadium, and we encountered more people, but this would be a running trend throughout the evening of being spoken to in Afrikaans or trying to speak in English to an Afrikaner. We were definitely in a whole different world now.
This was the first time we had truly been in an Afrikaner setting and it was quite weird to feel like such a foreigner around people who usually in South Africa have more in common with Americans than non-white South Africans, usually because of the economics. But not this evening. Rugby completely changes white South Africans in a way nothing else does, and something that Nelson Mandela so aptly understood as President. This experience opened up our eyes to the Afrikaans culture in a way that nothing else could do. Alisa very much thought it was a very American sporting culture (park, tailgate, drink lots of beer, drink and eat more at the stadium), which is certainly a very similar aspect we share despite having no sporting connection with the culture of South Africa. The fact that both societies developed the a similar sporting fandom culture independently suggests something about either the two sports (Gridiron Football and Rugby Union) the cultures regard as their pastimes (baseball is no longer the American pastime), or something about white Western European descendants and their sports.
In American sporting terms we had great seats. More like spaces marked out on cement, but we were just two rows up. However, in the Pumas Athletic Stadium of Witbank, this meant being at just eye level with the players, thus not allowing the spectators in this section to see much depth to the field of play. However, we were in the sun, which delighted Alisa (our game yesterday was spent in the shade and quite cold), so much so that she had to roll her pants up as we got to enjoy feeling warm for the first time in many days.
The game was of course a crushing defeat of the Italians by the Springboks. We were also fortunate to sit next to a young Afrikaner who was kind enough to answer some of the more basic to moderate questions I had left about the sport. For as simply as it is, there are tactics that make little sense, but after his explanations, the similarities between American football and Rugby seemed to increase in my mind (punting/kicking for field position and ‘fair’ catches on such punts/kicks that do not leave play).
It was great to see these players up close, and while there were no epic tackles, there were some hard challenges, that seen in person could easily compare to NFL tackles. The fact that these guys fly around the field with the same speed, the same strength, but without the padding of NFL players, increase the respect you have for them, especially when they pop back up from these hits and move on like nothing occurred. There was one play where the Italian #10 (sort of like the same position on the soccer field in terms of importance to the team, or like an American quarterback) was just layed out while he was running at full speed and making a cut back. The #10 position, just like in soccer is usually a small and fast player, and the Italian #10 was quickly back up on his feed despite the power of the impact and how hard he hit the ground. I’m sure adrenaline kicks in on the field, but the fact that these players can continue this for 80 minutes is impressive. The game itself is not has flowing as soccer, and I was surprised by the lack of crowd interaction. Of course the stadium felt like a church with the lack of vuvuzelas blowing incessantly in the stadium, and it made me wonder if American sport stadiums are this quite as well, because I can’t seem to remember a sporting event without the vuvuzelas. However, I expected there to be more cheering for certain plays in rugby that nuanced supporters would cheer, but besides the tries (the big scores, like touchdowns in American football) and the few big hits, there was no hooping and hollering from the stands. Even though this was an international test match, perhaps the lack of involvement was due to the fact that everyone knew Italy was going to get beat, and there was little doubt in the result of the game from the opening kick. Even so, this was the first match for the Springboks in Witbank, and I expected there to be many people attending their first Springboks game and making the appropriate noise.
Near the end a older Afrikaner leaned over to me (by this time everyone around us knew that despite me wearing a Springboks jersey, I was very much a foreigner) and commented on how it was ‘a much different atmosphere from the soccer’. I waited for him to make a crude comment about the vuvuzela’s or soccer, but he just repeated that it was a much different experience, a statement with which I could certainly agree. However, to get the full experience, I think next time I would like to go with a group of Afrikaners to the match and experience the full pre and post game fare and build up to truly get an insight. This was a good introduction, just as going to my first South African soccer mach was in Durban in 2007, but the next step is to go through the motions as a South African does. Till then this was a great experience to treasure even though if it was light on the excitement side.
We drove back to Elna’s to return to the land of hot water and regular electricity. Tomorrow we start our preparations for heading to Bloemfontein for another South African experience, a Bafana game in the heartland of the country, where the fans are known to be the most passionate in the entire country.