Rugby World Cup: Boks bowl over the nation

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IF THERE is one thing that might threaten the health of the Springboks, it is exposure. It is becoming increasingly difficult to open a newspaper here without seeing Francois Pienaar pictured with children in a township or in the company of a leading politician.

On Wednesday, the Boks visited an old rugby stadium in a township outside Cape Town, saw that it was vandalised and ill-equipped, and declared that within a year it would be rebuilt. On Monday, Parliament came to a standstill when the team came to visit. On Tuesday, they played Romania, which clashed with the national bowls tournament. The tournament chief insisted the bowls must go on, saying: "We will take the World Cup head on." Fewer than 100 bowls devotees turned up, and most of those watched the rugby on the television.

IF WE have marvelled at the stadiums that have been the backdrops for this World Cup, the size of the crowds inside them has been something of a disappointment, even though official attendance figures are not available. The England v Argentina game, for instance, was supposedly a sell-out, yet the stadium was less than two-thirds full.

The ticket arrangements have been little short of a fiasco, because the official travel operators were forced to buy their match tickets in blocks containing tickets for all stages of the tournament. Unsurprisingly, they found it easier to sell packages involving the knock-out stages, and so bundles of tickets for the first round have gone to waste, having been unreturned.

There has been criticism, too, for the Rugby World Cup organisers for overpricing the tickets and for their seemingly haphazard distribution - only a month ago did the unsold tickets go on sale to agents who are not the World Cup's "official travel operators". "The Rugby World Cup organisers should be ashamed of themselves," said Mike Burton, the former England prop, whose travel company are in the ranks of the unofficial. "This shouldn't have been allowed to happen and should never be allowed to happen again."

For those who are out here with tickets, trying to get a global view of the tournament is quite a test. For all that the South Africans love their rugby, the television coverage of it is shockingly poor. Highlights coverage is almost non-existent, but worse is the delayed screenings of some of the games. If you wanted to watch Scotland's match with Tonga on Tuesday, it meant staying up until 1am for the kick-off. And if you want to enjoy coverage of the Springbok matches, it helps to be tri-lingual, with the commentary shared between English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, the language of South Africa's second largest black tribe.

While the attempt to make their coverage accessible to many quarters of the population is commendably PC, one wonders why the SABC employ Uli Schmidt as one of its pundits. Schmidt was the Springbok hooker who, on the eve of South Africa's comeback to international rugby three years ago, declared it an outrage that the Springboks should go into the townships to take rugby clinics.

YESTERDAY the South Africa had to bid goodbye to the Ivory Coast, and in the most tragic of circumstances as their wing Max Brito lay paralysed in hospital after their 29-11 loss to Tonga. Their departure is all the more poignant as they will be remembered chiefly for the joyful way in which they played. They have conceded the expected avalanche of points, they have seen defeat as a triumph (can any other team have ever lost to a half-century of points, as they did against France, and yet been deliriously happy afterwards?) and in the flanker Ismaila Lassissi, they have even given us a player to remember. They have given the commentators problems - Bill McLaren called them the "Ivory Coastians" while Chick Henderson, who commentates on South African television, couldn't do any better than "the Ivory Coast chappies".

When the World Cup tournament expands to 20 teams in 1999 there will be even more opportunities for the smaller nations to show strength in adversity. Of those teams not here in South Africa, only the United States, Namibia and South Korea could perhaps hold their own, as rugby union is clearly not at the stage when emerging nations are capable of upsets. Meanwhile, a new tournament begins in October when France, Italy, Romania and Argentina play for the Latin Cup in Buenos Aires. The tournament will be held every two years.

IN Japan's hotel in Bloemfontein on Wednesday night, there were no complaints about the television coverage. Some stayed up to watch the late-night highlights package and they cheered wholeheartedly as each of their tries against Ireland was replayed. The volume of their applause rose dramatically for the next item on the bill: New Zealand v Wales and, more specifically, the injury to Jonah Lomu, Kiwi wing who has become the flavour of the tournament. The Japanese realised they would not have to face him today; it was time to party.

FINALLY, an incomplete study of how teams pass the time: the Japanese buy souvenirs for the folks back home (they are not too pleased with the price of gold and diamonds), the Irish play pool (Michael Bradley invariably comes out on top), and the All Blacks play golf and indoor cricket (Jeff Wilson takes all the beating, hardly surprising given that he has played internationally). The Springboks, however, are passionate table- tennis players. The best players are Brendan Venter and Andre Joubert; stick them at either end of the table and they will be at it all night.

Contributions by Owen Slot and Clem Thomas

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