Home nations' sinking feeling

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The Independent Online
As an exercise in public relations, the official opening of the World Cup was a proud and memorable moment for South Africa. Unofficially, for the home countries, it was a fiasco.

First, the Wales squad had to rise at 5am to catch a flight from Bloemfontein to Cape Town via Durban. The stopover was to pick up the England party en route. As for the return leg, no sooner were they back in the air than the plane was hit by turbulence of such severity that it plummeted 1,000 feet. Rory Underwood, the England wing and a pilot in the RAF, turned a whiter shade of pale and Steve Ford, the Wales wing who was in the toilet at the time, admitted afterwards that perhaps, under the circumstances, he was in the most appropriate place. "I've never been so frightened in all my life," Ford said. It did not help matters that the captain of the flight came over the tannoy to publicly wish England the best of luck. Wales were not even mentioned in dispatches.

When the teams had arrived in Cape Town they were bussed to a marquee for lunch on the Groot Constantia estate just in time to hear the Irishman Sir Ewart Bell, the chairman of Rugby World Cup Ltd, say: "The unique gathering of all the participants ahead of the tournament epitomised the concept of camaraderie and friendship which is the hallmark of the game of rugby football."

Unfortunately the heavens opened and sections of the marquee wilted under the weight of the downpour. Noel Murphy, the Ireland manager, was among those who got drenched. Nor did the lunch itself go down particularly well. There was an interminable wait between the starter and the main course and then they ran out of vegetables.

As for the dessert, the British players never saw it. Wales, England and Scotland (the Scots had got up at 6am to take a separate flight from Pretoria) had to rush back to the airport.

After suffering a delay on the runway, the Scots arrived back at their hotel in Pretoria at 7.30pm. "It was equivalent to flying to Tenerife and back for lunch," said one player. Duncan Paterson, the Scotland team manager, said: "Logistically the occasion was not in the interests of anybody." It is not for nothing that Scotland are sponsored by The Famous Grouse.

The Springboks had done their best to make them feel at home, issuing all the visiting players with a printed message: "On behalf of our union and on behalf of our country, with joy in our hearts, we welcome you to South Africa. Through the coming days and nights of this great festival you will see how powerfully the World Cup has pulled our fledgling nation together and why we can properly greet you as one team representing one country."

Meanwhile, Bill McLaren, the BBC's voice of rugby, will be heard but not seen at this World Cup. ITV bought the exclusive television rights but McLaren's rich Borders brogue will grace the airwaves for BBC radio. However, the veteran commentator was far from happy when he discovered that the entire French three-quarter line had shaved their heads. As they all look like convicts, it will make player identification a hair-raising experience.

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