The Roar
The Roar

My semifinal Saturday started at Trafalgar Square, a monument to Admiral Horatio Nelson’s victory over Spanish and French armadas. His smaller flotilla sunk 22 enemy ships, without a single loss. Britain’s naval supremacy lasted more than a century, from that day.

I haven’t had a lot of heroes. I’m not the sort to idolise a man. Look too close at anyone and the heroic veneer chips away. Admiral Nelson belongs in my small pantheon because he was a brave rascal, a traveller, a glutton for punishment with an uncontrolled appetite for pleasure, prone to recklessness, too tough for his own good, and full of the flaws of all good men.

He departed from prevailing naval doctrine; rather than maximise field of fire, he divided his smaller force into two columns, driving them perpendicularly into the larger foe. ‘Damn tactics, go straight at ‘em!’ he cried; but in reality, he was a master tactician.

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Nelson was shot and later died from his wounds; he had already lost an arm and eye before Trafalgar. His mistress and muse, Emma Hamilton, inspired a dozen operas and her likeness, so scandalous in life, hangs in honour at the National Gallery today, near the statue of her lover.

Another hero: I like the cut of the great and incorruptible Sardinian general Giuseppe Garibaldi’s jib, and I sometimes go by Haribaldi in his honour. Being incorruptible in Italy is not that easy. He was a deist, a progressive; he had a grand beard, he dressed in style, and one of his three marriages lasted only one day.

David Pocock will ask me to expand my list beyond dead white men, so let me mention my heroine Aung San Suu Kyi, the brave Burmese dissident; for her grace, her principle, and dare I say, her beauty. I love her observation: It is not power that corrupts, but fear. (She is not a rascal or a glutton; but she is not a man).

Can any list of heroes on The Roar exclude the Greeks? Nikos Kazantzakis wrote a few books and lived a life that I use every day as an example. He grew up in Crete under the Ottomans, studied law, saw the world, blended Bergson and Nietzsche into an Orthodox sensibility, lived in Paris, Rome, Moscow, Madrid, Cyprus, Cairo, Nice, Tokyo, Berlin, the Sinai, and Beijing; breaking a few hearts as he went; served as a cabinet minister, almost won the Nobel Prize nine times for Zorba the Greek, the Last Temptation of Christ, and my personal credo, Freedom or Death, had his picture on Greek currency, was excommunicated by the Orthodox church, and was thus buried outside the walls with this epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

This will all make sense in a bit. I digress, but I digress for a point to be made later.

The sky was grey in London in Leicester Square as I left the hotel. It was not far to Trafalgar Square where the two-mile jog with the 1995 Springbok squad would begin. But I was early for the 7:30 start, and it was dark and cold, just as I like a run, and the best way to see a giant, busy city is on an early jog.

I went through Chinatown, past St. Anne’s Church which is just next to the House of Ho. I am not sure which of those institutions is winning, currently. The narrow streets were wet with the detritus of Friday night’s debauchery, but festooned above with paprika-hued lanterns and flags, allowing the East to meet the West in this great repository of wealth and capital and ideas and trade.

Running along an ale-slicked cobblestone street, past shops named Bubbleology, The Yard Bar, the Rude Bastard, Smog, Spice Joy, and Lick my Hose, and galleries dedicated to works of art like a glass of water on a table or a simple black dot on a white canvas, I saw a tottering trio of young women on heels too high, with skirts too short, take a heavy spill on the pavement, near the Mall. They shouted at me, in wholly unintelligible dialect, about doing something with them that sounded illegal, and then laughed in that delirium of sleepless binge.

Green Park and St. James and Hyde Park form a ribbon of oases. I began to see pockets of Bok supporters arriving, ready to run. And there, right before me, a childhood rugby hero, Morne du Plessis, who played the eighth-man position the way I tried to: hard at the coalface, but quick to link, never letting the ball die, and capable of any pass a back could dream up. He looked just as fit as in the old days, maybe leaner, and we had a lovely chat about rugby and politics; how do you separate those in Bokland?

Running along an ale-slicked cobblestone street, past shops named Bubbleology, The Yard Bar, the Rude Bastard, Smog, Spice Joy, and Lick my Hose.

John Smit, no hero of mine, was there, looking leaner than in 2011, but Francois Pienaar had to be the fittest of all the old players. He looked ready to take the field at 4:00pm at Twickenham, this 24th day of October in 2015.

A run through chaotically-designed and labyrinthine London in the half-light on wet streets with half of the joggers trying to take selfies with Pienaar or Japie Mulder in the background while navigating benches and curbs, is like a miniature Battle of Trafalgar. The casualties were rife.

But the mood was good. Perhaps the high point was the singing of the national anthem around the 9-foot tall statute of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square. Pienaar reenacted the iconic scene with the late leader of reconciliation, but this time, it was Mandela who towered over the former Bok skipper.

The rain was steady, but it was a reality, and most of us agreed that was a bad thing for the Boks. New Zealand, with one of the best flyhalves in rugby history at the helm, seemed more like an Admiral Nelson when it comes to the tactical kicking that was sure to dominate in this weather than South Africa’s young pivot, only just legal to drink in a London pub.

I kept running, because I knew I would be drinking Murphy’s Irish Stout from noon until whenever the Bok wake or the jubilant all-night celebration of an All Black scalp ended.

London is a fine place to go for a long run. After a hot shower, a sausage roll, and at least three cappuccinos, I flagged a black cab near Piccadilly. Two burly red-headed guys limped up to me before I got in, and the one who looked like a tighthead prop who’d lost a fight observed that it would be lovely to share a taxi to Twickenham if that was where I was going.

Picadilly

Rugby binds us in union. On the ride through diverse, ‘just barely English’ central London to the leafy ‘very very English’ southwestern suburb of Richmond, my two Ulstermen cab companions and I analysed the semifinal. Both were still active players, but old like me, with highly specific limps.

In fact, after a few minutes, we realised the ginger prop and I had played against each other when he was touring South Africa and that he had been sent off in that game in Cape Town in the 80s.

What a small world! As Diggercane observed to me recently, rugby has only about one degree of separation. I was careful to establish that neither of us assaulted the other in any memorable way.

The freckled, injured Ulstermen asked about South Africa’s quotas (I told the prop his hair was curly and coloured enough that he might satisfy the test), if there is skiing in South Africa (yes, in the Drakensberg), how to pronounce Lood de Jager’s name, and the prop-who-was-sent-off predicted Willie le Roux would have to catch “ten garryowens cleanly today for the Boks to win” (spoiler alert: Willie caught eleven of the All Blacks’ record 47 kicks; he spilled one).

They also asked me if I thought the Springboks could score a try against the All Blacks today. I told them: “No. But I don’t think we’ll need to to win. I think it’s going to be a two-point game, only one try for them, and a drop goal wins it.” They nodded as if I had said something wise, and then we moved on to other topics, like the mating rituals of Croatian women.

I am not sure the taxi left us much closer to Twickenham that when we started. He could go no further; he dropped us, we three who had become friends, right into a melee at a train station made up of, you guessed it, Croats in red tracksuits, marching in the rain to the stadium. It turns out Croats’ mating rituals may involve dressing up like Welsh rugby players and singing. These gigantic men did like my rainbow scarf, I will note.

London can absorb massive groups of people. On this same weekend, the NFL was staging a game at Wembley, Arsenal was playing at Emirates Stadium, West Ham was playing at Boleyn Ground, the Book of Mormon and Wicked are still full in Covent Garden, and thirteen million souls switched places, moving about to theatres, bistros, clubs, museums, concerts, weddings, psychiatrists, reflexologists, seers, bars, gyms, or just home to burrow in and watch the rest of us as we drank in all the city has to offer.

The average Londoner had no clue which teams were playing in this particular game. On the Tube, a rotund man from Fulham was trying to explain to his cherubic wife why so many large and nervous men from the Southern Hemisphere were on the train: “Yes, I fink Australia has beaten, yes of course, they’re called the Kangaroos, and they won against Souf Africa last night, so now Wales is playing the All Blacks, today.”

London simply has so much going on. London exists in so many forms. So many dialects and districts. It is separate and self-existent and self-absorbed. And simple to get to.

New Zealand is not that easy to visit. I understand that about 135,000 foreign visitors came to New Zealand for the 2011 Rugby World Cup (half of them from Australia) and the whole event generated $500 million in consumer spending. London has that many foreigners visit every week; and they spend $500 million on samosas just on a Friday night.

We never felt crowded in New Zealand and even though the North Island is as skinny as Conrad Smith, we felt spacious, whether we were rappelling into a black abyss, inspecting glow worms in a cold cavern, climbing sheer rock faces, tackling each other into a coma at the Pakuranga Rugby Club, doing wind sprints on a Waiheke Island beach, buying Fijian mussel-pork fritters and butties in an open-air Otara market, or careening down the underground Waitomo River in the dark.

In London, you are never in space. Londoners do traffic like Boks play rugby. Londoners walk on sidewalks like Duane Vermeulen plays rugby; bouncing rivals off, offloading a package at times, and never dropping any possessions. (I should point out, as a foreshadowing, that Vermeulen caught four of the All Blacks’ 47 kicks, and never knocked on; hell, he never knocked on even one time in the World Cup).

Auckland was only interested in one thing in 2011: the rugby. London, in contrast, invented attention deficit syndrome.

But there are a few similarities: walking together with rival fans to the stadium for a game in the rain. I’ve never been more drenched than in New Zealand. In Auckland, the route was uphill, through the city, up to Mount Eden, through an intriguing cross-section of the Auckland isthmus: the business sector, a synagogue, an Indian festival, strip clubs (outside of which, a gay bouncer mooned the entire procession of fans), lush parks, and then, historic Eden Park.

Auckland was only interested in one thing in 2011: the rugby. London, in contrast, invented attention deficit syndrome.

The walk through Richmond was just as ribald, but this time the winding streets with quaint and tidy homes were lined with braai pits, signs about boerewors and biltong, and hog roasts, and bobbies were bobbing about, exhorting us to keep moving.

I’d lost the Ulstermen and the Croats and replaced them with two friendly Argentines. We ate meat together, and discussed the next semifinal. I was pessimistic for the Pumas, and they wanted to know why. “Porque Pocock es un asesino. Un asesino de tango.”

Both of them live in Brazil, but had a remarkably deep knowledge of Argentine rugby; I soaked it all up, as I tried to calm my nerves with two Murphy’s. Both of them were as stout as the beer, so it was natural when we got to Twickenham to join forces to create a Rugby Championship front row to compete in the DHL scrum challenge (a booth set up to measure and analyse scrum power and technique) against three large but hapless Englishmen. We had the dominant scrum.

Two Murphys later and I was listening to a heavily cosmetic-covered Samoan troupe sing a lovely lullaby, while an Irish band paraded around the concourse.

The rain was just heavy enough to keep my second sausage pie cool enough to eat.

When they opened the gates, the two Argentines and I stood at pitch side to watch the All Blacks practice drill. Only two Boks were out: Pat Lambie and Ruan Pienaar (Lambie was destined to kick a penalty; Pienaar never even made it on the field).

Lambie and Pienaar spent about 30 minutes perfecting with uncanny precision a style and height and placement of kick that Dan Carter was to use about 13 of the 17 times he kicked out of hand (and it was also the low, skidding, diagonal kick used by Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, and Nehe Milner-Skudder).

After 15 flawlessly metronomic kicks back and forth by the two Sharks, I turned my attention to the most remarkable drill I’ve seen, at the other end of the pitch. I will do my best to explain it.

Harry Jones

The All Blacks (except the front and second rowers) were arranged in three “pods.” One pod was kickers (Ben Smith, Dan Carter, Aaron Smith, etc.). They punted from cones set about 10 metres from the try-line, then 15, then 20, then 25 metres.

They were clearly trying to hit up-and-unders over the poles, but dropping it in the relatively small in-goal area. Thus, the target was defined. They also appeared to be using the poles themselves as a measuring stick for height. Every kicker seemed to continue kicking until he’d satisfied the assistant coach as to height, accuracy, and landing area.

The second pod was made up of catchers (outside backs, Kieran Read). They leapt every time, turning sideways. They continued until they’d satisfied another trainer.

The third group were chasers; not including the kicker himself. These chasers (reserve backs, Nonu, Dane Coles) came from left and right of the poles; always actually trying to steal the ball. It was an AFL-style drill, requiring great technique, and making ingenious use of the grounds.

The best thing was how many attempts they managed to practice in a half-hour. It was clear they knew what kind of game both teams would have to use (and there was more than a kick a minute in the game: 87 kicks). Beauden Barrett must have more energy than a rabbit on speed, because he was in all three pods and chased down errant kicks and catches.

After a while, Pienaar (who had not missed Lambie even once in about 40 attempts, even on a wet field) turned to observe.

Twickenham has the typical modern drumbeat of an annoying announcer who seemed to have a man crush on Brad Thorn, the pyrotechnics, pumping music from irrelevant eras and genres, and announcements that are non sequiturs about verbal abuse (what do they think we are, a Chelsea crowd?); but a perfect pitch and excellent sight lines.

My seat was 30 rows up, in line with a ten-metre line; virtually a television view. I was surrounded by shy, polite Kiwis for the most part, but to my left was a bloc of loud and gregarious fans from Johannesburg, and my immediate neighbour was an earnest and heavily eye-browed Englishman and his son (his other son was on the field in regimental dress, tending to the flag). Anecdotally, I think the crowd tilted towards New Zealand, though.

Even before the heavy rains and winds came in the second half, the air was hazy and thick and wet; like Greg Martin’s prose.

The timing of that four-mug Murphy purchase (remember, I ran five miles and walked two more, everyone) and that one last exodus to the toilets is vital in a Test match of this magnitude. A walk to the loo allows more sociological observations.

There are four main categories of Bok fans abroad.

The first is the tremendously reserved little family groups. They keep their hands close to their travel fanny packs, they ask each other hushed little questions, their replica jerseys are understated long-sleeved classic versions, without any face paint or springbok horns emanating from crotch or crown, they appear very worried, and try to avoid any direct communication with anyone in the toilets.

The second have just come from the gym. They have a medium size Bok jersey coloured pink, which was the correct size when they were 12, the veins on their head put Heyneke Meyer’s to shame, they are wearing big sandy-colored boots, and as they urinate, they head butt the wall and any other Bok fan they see, as they shout “Bokke Bokke Bokke” and spank themselves. As they reunite with their very fit and very blonde and quite tall girlfriend outside, and put her in neck roll death spiral, they turn to you and wink while they leer.

The third is the guy who is so big he cannot sit down. His eyes are almost as red as his cheeks, and he does not need a gym. He is the gym. He is already halfway catatonic, and does not respond to any stimuli, except beer. He looks like a guy who would need five bouncers to quell, but also like he might not survive the afternoon.

The fourth is the healthy, happy, smart, friendly, good-looking guys from Cape Town flirting with the Maori women, the Argentine beauties, and the hilarious girls from Sydney.

The four groups focus on different parts of the anthem; the Kiwi fans are all the same (they wear black, they are polite, they are slender, they don’t sing their anthem, they look apologetic). There’s no animosity here; these are two tribes at truce. Or at least off the field.

Part of that seems to be the pacifism of Kiwis who aren’t actually playing rugby. I have decided New Zealanders, the least corrupt of nations I hear, should adopt Aung San Suu Kyi as their patron saint.

But then the game starts after the humid air has been polluted with fireworks and cannons, and the first few hits are sickeningly forceful, but the Boks win the ball and before a minute has struck, the ball is swung wide to le Roux galloping into the line, sending speedster Jesse Kriel sprinting into the All Black 22, with only Ben Smith to beat if the cover defence cannot scramble. A smart infringement after a crucial tackle allows Handre Pollard to find his strike, but then the All Blacks score on an early overlap where de Jager is marooned in wing defence against balletic Jerome Kaino.

My prediction of a 9-7 Bok win looks inane, but then after a while, that’s exactly the score. I liked that score. A scrum at 25:11. A good scrum. And the Boks up 9-7. I shouted at my section: “Enough! That’s all the points anyone needs!”

But the thing was, too much of the game was being played in the Bok half. And yellow card to that man Kaino notwithstanding, the Kiwis continued to use that low, skidding grubber or bullet kick to pin the Boks, who were getting very little distance on their punts, deep in their half. The boy Pollard was never going to miss touch, so he never took a risk, and veteran Fourie du Preez had survived one of the biggest hits I’ve ever seen from Kaino early in the match, which seemed to have affected his kick length.

The few times the Boks tried to exit with a run were risky; and ended up giving the All Blacks just what they wanted in the second half. Burger carried the ball too high into contact, Carter stripped it, and there was that Bok-beating bastard Barrett sliding in under JP Pietersen, who failed to attack the ball, after Kriel was stood up by Nonu.

It was classic Horatio Nelson. Split the bigger enemy (the sides are almost identical in size, but we’ll stick with the meta-narrative the Boks are bigger), be incisive, sink the ship.

This was not a game of clean breaks. Yes, the All Blacks had 348 ‘attacking events’ in the Bok half (94 in the South African 22) compared to 118 for South Africa, and the All Blacks won the ball 29 times in the red zone (South Africa won only three red zone balls), but the tackling (first time or scramble) was maniacal by both teams. In particular, Eben Etzebeth (who only missed one tackle in the entire World Cup, yet is in the leaders in carries, tackles, and gainline crossings), Francois Louw, Kaino, Nonu, and Sam Whitelock were driving through ball carriers.

Attacking wizards de Allende, Kriel, Barrett, and Milner-Skudder only had one break each (Kriel had one carry; one break). But Louw and Richie McCaw were attached like limpets to prone ball carriers. One thing was for sure: neither team was going to be able to play rugby from their own 22. South Africa tried and regretted it. New Zealand was too smart for that: they kicked the leather off the ball just a little more than the Boks, a lot better, and with a clear purpose.

New Zealand scored their 20th point after one hour, and never scored again; nor did they look threatening. The issue was whether the Boks could find those last six points to win.

There was this moment, at 18-20 and 72:00, when it seemed as if fortune would finally favour Meyer’s team. Louw won another turnover at about halfway, the ball went wide quickly for once, Lambie found grass with a kick, and Carter had to boot it out, desperately inside his 22. But the lineout drive stalled, Lambie knocked on at the 10 metre line, and the moment was lost.

Obviously, if the Boks had won, the argument would have been that rugby was the loser and all that was once good is lost.

But just as muscular liberals Garibaldi and Kazantzakis were excommunicated for their fight for freedom, and later lionised; if South Africa had solved the most difficult problem in rugby (how to beat New Zealand when they are in form), surely there might have been some glory in that?

Might there have been some small ounce of goodness in more than one style seen as ‘good?’ A hard-nosed, uncompromising, never-say-die style is bad for rugby?

New Zealand’s current squad is one of the best in its history. They won by playing better football. But let’s be honest. The All Blacks never exited with ball in hand, and even when they entered the Bok half, they kicked more than they ran. They kicked 47 times. They waited to spin it wide until they were ten metres out from the Bok tryline.

I looked at Test stats for the last few years; I cannot find any team kicking that much.

Kazantzakis and his dream of dying like a horse, neighing while he digs his fingers in to the windowsill, hanging by his own strength, just after ravishing a Macedonian widow; it’s all so romantic.

Unfettered freedom is overrated. It ends in watching Jackass reruns and sniffing glue. Even art needs a reference. A doctrine.

Nelson built a navy that sank enough ships – that won – so that Britannia ruled the seas, and rugby is played all over, now. As Nelson said: “First gain the victory; then make the best use of it you can.”

Admiral Carter won. But he taught young Pollard a valuable lesson in defeat. And even an old sea dog like du Preez should have known better than to pass to Burger deep in the Bok 22.

Kazantzakis wrote: “a person needs a little madness; or else they never dare cut the rope and be free.”

But that was that. The better team won. And even in victory, the Kiwi fans who mauled with us Bok fans into the toilet for one last wizz before we braved the elements were unfailingly honest (‘jeez that was close’) and generous (‘great young team you have there; next year is going to be tough’). Maybe they were just polite, but I appreciated it.

When you travel so far, and you are all alone, in the cold rain, the beer buzz gone, hunger has returned, and your first five steps outside the stadium are ankle-twisting missteps into muddy gutters, and you realise how much money you just spent to watch your boys lose, and when it is dark, and no taxis are coming, and the pubs of Richmond are far away, and an ill-advised rendezous with a rugby guy from Mexico is still on for later and no way to contact him to call it off so I can just commiserate with some Saffas in the pub; the agreeable side of me starts to dissolve.

“Great young team you have there; next year is going to be tough”

I was actually happy that I owed Biltongbek a yellowfin tuna steak, because it took my mind off the try we conceded.

Aung San Suu Kyi speaks often of retaining humour in dire straits. Seeing the world’s best team in the semifinal, even if it involves a close loss by your own team, is hardly comparable to the losses she has suffered.

So, I did my best. Walking along the long road to the FanZone and Richmond, a group of ebullient young Kiwis were weaving around each other, light poles, other fans, and perfecting amazing passes. Soon, one of them spun a perfect pass to me. I did a little spiral behind the back, and they cheered. It’s just rugby.

Soon, we were jogging, a little backline of our own. The Kiwis all seem to have Read-like offloading skills, until one ran into a fence he didn’t see. “This legitimately hurts, guys!” he wailed, as we laughed. The ball bounced to the road. Double-decker buses squealed to a stop. The ball sat in the rainy lights of the buses on the slick road. It was my moment; doing my best Aaron Smith impression, I slid into the ball, in a crouch, and without rising I whipped a bulletlike 20 metre pass.

Into the river.

Sorry, lads. That’s why Will Genia looks around before he passes.

On the train, a foreign element arrives. football fans. Lager louts. A group, maybe five gather around the same pole (“Wank the pole! Ha ha ha! We’s Polish!”) They were unfunny Ricky Gervais xenophobes. They realised it was a rugby train, so they started to mock each anthem they knew; their version of Scotland’s song replete with ephithets. The train car was silent. It was awkward.

The ringleader noticed my scarf. “Ooh, he’s a Springbok man. Oooohhh, he’s lookin’ at me like he’s going to give me a smack! Just playin’ wid ya. Come on, then. Sing your anthem!”

I just looked at him, without expression. His mates told him to leave it. They started singing “Frozen.” But he was annoyed at me. “Come on then. Do you know it? Come on be a good man. F—ing downer.”

“Ooh, he’s a Springbok man. Oooohhh, he’s lookin’ at me like he’s going to give me a smack! Just playin’ wid ya. Come on, then. Sing your anthem!”

I didn’t know what his loud crew would do next, but I decided to let it go, like the Frozen song exhorts us to do.

A small elderly woman got on the train, and the largest, loudest lager lout started to ask where she was from (Bulgaria) and then announced for everyone to watch their pockets, because people from Bucharest are pickpockets.

She corrected him about Bulgaria’s capital, which incensed him. “What you come here to take our jobs? Where do you work?” She told him.

“How many days?” he asked her; the train was painfully quiet.

“Every day.” She was proud, but nervous.

“Do you wear knee pads? Check your pockets, lads! She works hard so you can be hard!” His mates shrieked at the ‘wit.’

The pole was between him and I; I reached for his belt, and pulled him to the pole sharply, so that he lost his breath, and circled my arm around his head. “Leave her alone, you —— or I’ll —- up your face in front of this whole —- train.” And he knew I would.

His mates started to apologise and tell me he just had a bit to drink. They got off at the next station, and of course called me a wanker as the doors closed. And everyone around us clapped.

Victor Matfield South Africa Springboks Richie McCaw New Zealand All Blacks Rugby World Cup 2015 Semi-Final

Another long walk to my next set of beers; in pouring rain. The pubs were so packed and dark.

I had to order four Murphy’s at a time for this lovely group of new friends I’d made on the train. We had a great laugh about the football hooligans, and even became a little deep (or maybe it was the beer), and once again, I was struck with how Union binds us.

And when we spoke of rugby, there was a certain reverence at our table, at all these tables of hairy Scots and sharp-featured Uruguayans and well-heeled Capetonians and rough old Provencals, and the occasional Brit, as well.

We are speaking of the waves, the swings, the battle, the belief in something purer than us, Garibaldi’s longing for union, Nelson’s refusal to yield no matter the cost; the respites of rugby that allow us to store up pent up fury for the panther-like movements of defence synchronised to the balletic thrusts of the offence.

Kazantzakis writes about walking on a journey in torrents of rain:

Drenched to the bone, I arrived in a little Calabrian village. I had to find a hearth where I could dry out, a corner where I could sleep. The streets were deserted, the doors bolted. The dogs were the only ones to scent the stranger’s breath; they began to bark from within the courtyards. The peasants in this region are wild and misanthropic, suspicious of strangers. O for my late grandfather in Crete who took his lantern each evening and made the rounds of the village to see if any stranger had come.

Here in the Calabrian villages there were no such grandfathers. Suddenly I saw an open door at the edge of the village. Inclining my head, I looked in: a murky corridor with a lighted fire at the far end and an old lady bent over it. She seemed to be cooking. Not a sound, nothing but the burning wood. It was fragrant; it must have been fine. I crossed the threshold and entered, bumping against a long table which stood in the middle of the room.

Finally, I reached the fire and sat down on a stool which I found in front of the hearth. The old lady was squatting on another stool, stirring the meal with a wooden spoon. I felt that she eyed me rapidly, without turning. But she said nothing. Taking off my jacket, I began to dry it. I sensed happiness rising in me like warmth, from my feet to my shins, my thighs, my breast. Hungrily, avidly, I inhaled the fragrance of the steam rising from the pot.

The woman goes on to serve him the soup, give him a bed, and later reveals it was all for her own pleasure: the first night since her husband had died long ago that she had slept well, after watching a man eat her food.

And then Kazantzakis writes something I carry with me all the time: “Once more I realised to what an extent earthly happiness is made to the measure of man. It is not a rare bird which we must pursue at one moment in heaven, at the next in our minds. Happiness is a domestic bird in our own courtyards.”

Later, much later, after my meeting, which I enjoyed, in SoHo and Leicester Square, rugby was long gone. There are no children here; no mothers.

Slim-hipped androgyny rules this quarter of the City with my hotel so minimalist it is almost not even real, and a Euro beat is ubiquitous, no English required, no words needed, as if the entire of central London cannot exist without a giant incoherent heartbeat, as if all the swivel-jeaned, beat-banging, manic-ironic club devotees cannot be weaned from the sound of Mother Earth’s heart; a pagan longing for a return to the womb.

Sleep came in the end, but only after I read about what I had just seen. The game looked different on the highlights; a series of disjointed events.

A battle preordained. But when I was there, it seemed like a desperate struggle without any solace. Like the sailors who sank at Trafalgar, knowing it was the end. But that might have been the last few whiskeys.

This piece by Harry Jones originally ran on 30th October, 2015.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series of Harry Jones’ trips to World Cups. Read the second article, Losing in Wellington, here.

Written by Harry Jones

Design by Elise Boyd

Editing by Patrick Effeney

Image Credit: All images are Copyright AAP Australia and Harry Jones

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