Quick safety training. Pull the rope around you. Thread it. Hold it out. Step in the tomo. No worries. Give a little hop. Just start rappelling. Control your descent. The riverbed is definitely 100 metres down and this rope is definitely about 100 metres long. Harry, why don’t you start us off, mate?
We were in Waitomo. It was October in 2011. The knockout rounds were starting.
My teenaged son and I were in a lush field pock-marked by holes. The idea was to drop to the floor of the limestone cave, hike up a narrow path perched on a wall of the underground river using miners’ torches, until we could no longer stand, throw the tube into the rushing river, and ride a much faster three kilometres back, illuminated by glow worms, and climb up and out the wet rock opening, whereupon we were promised warm tomato soup. Our guide was succinct.
In essence, this was also the Springbok game plan to win the Cup. Close your eyes, don’t think too much, rappel from lineouts into a dark maul, squeeze into tight jerseys, stay focused, don’t complain, and emerge from the hole victorious.
Taking a breath, I dropped into the abyss; hoping my 100 kilograms was properly anchored by our wee guide. The rope was a bit short, but I adapted to the situation, unlike the Boks. The water was all black and frigid.
Tramping up the side of the deafening Waitomo River in the darkness for a couple of hours and then hurtling back in sharp smooth curves, allowed reflection. Blackwater rafting is fast and quiet; only catching your knee on something jagged keeps you lapsing into a fugue.
My contemplation of the upcoming quarter-finals (Irish choke tackles versus Warburton’s wiles, English stubbornness facing French brutality, South African aged beef pitted against Australia’s marsupial-style rugby, and the host’s perfunctory trot past the Argentines) was interrupted by our dour guide’s sudden leap to a rock. He must have been a gymnast, I thought.
We beached our craft and beheld a rock doughnut through which the subterranean Waitomo River burst. Thousands of years of riparian bombardment had fashioned a small smooth tunnel.
“Perfect hole there, mates. Pop right through and out, I reckon.”
“You sure I can fit through?”
He sized me like a haberdasher on the verge of a big pin-striped sale.
“Yeh, mate. Close enough.”
He took our tubes downriver. Into the current I went. I aimed at the stone keyhole as if I was Heinrich Brussow. Maybe I should have gone wellies-first and arms aloft, programming my inner mermaid thoughts instead.
I went head-first, arms by my side, but my shoulders were the size of the hole. I became a human plug. The river rammed me snugly into the hole.
“And this is how it ends,” I thought. I recommend the Waitomo underwater cave bajada to understand how a tighthead prop feels.
About a minute of panic ensued, during which I received a Waitomo enema. But in the end, the river spat me out into a happy maelstrom, into the grateful arms of my diminutive guide: “Jeez, thought you were stuck for good, mate!”
New Zealand has invented a wide variety of ways to almost die. In downtown Auckland, a sign beseeched us to “Hurl Yourself off NZ’s Highest Building.” Then, “Jump off the tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere!” It turns out Mr Bungy was a Kiwi.
Violent crime in New Zealand is so low the natives have a range of self-inflicted terror to amuse visitors from deadlier places. We saw bungy opportunities from ledges and bridges and buildings; they all touted their respective free fall timelines (4.3 seconds, 6.6 seconds, even 8.5 seconds!) and ground rush sensations. We indulged in all adrenaline-based sports.
And this is how it ends
Not all signs in New Zealand are death-defying. Upon landing at Auckland International, I was struck by a banner that modestly asserted the airport was “Ninth Best in the World.” A small subtitle mentioned this was “Up from Tenth in 2010.” What humble soul created that sign?
Part of Kiwi humility stems from their archipelago being way down in the Roaring Forties, the profound winds circling the globe between 35 and 45 degrees latitude.
You have to plan to go. You won’t stumble upon it, like you might mistakenly find yourself in Belgium after a rowdy night in the northern suburbs of Paris.
My impression of New Zealand was initially clean, witty, fresh, volcanic, isolated, and informal. And that was just from the toilets in the airport.
Maybe it’s because this was one of the last lands on earth to have homo sapiens upon it. There is a sense the “new” in New Zealand is truer than in other “new” places (New York, for instance). Like the newest boy in boarding school, there is a shy reserve about Kiwis, as if they are worried you will mistake them for a loud Australian.
Kiwis have reached a great deal of domestic consensus; slight grievances crop up around the renaming of places, agitation for reparations, and futile separatist longings (there is even a Maori Party). The Maori were themselves relatively recent arrivals on the islands: sometime between 1250 and 1300 they defied prevailing currents and winds to reach the North Island.
Elections were in full swing while we were there: a center-right party preaches freer trade and public austerity, while the center-left promises a ‘livable minimum wage’ of $15/hour and ‘no asset sales,’ and the far-left urges an even more livable minimum wage and less free trade. The tyranny of small decisions in a mostly agreeable island nation makes for relatively calm politics.
For instance, I detected very little debate on the value of conservation; the widely-held national belief is New Zealand must be protected from hyper-production and ‘growth.’ A quarter of the land is forested; the beauty of the place is an obvious asset. Unless I missed something, all the lamb and beef is ‘grass-fed.’
On the other hand, the locals complained to me that hundreds of thousands of Kiwis live in Australia, because the job market is so small at home.
If you do find work, and maybe even if you do not, Auckland is still extremely ‘livable’. Most worldwide surveys place Auckland in the world’s top ten cities for quality of life: free buses, cheap ferries, great climate, strong schools, low crime, and diverse communities.
Half of our meals involved Thai curry, and the remainder included Turkish kebabs, Indian vindaloo, Vietnamese pho, Japanese sushi, fried Fiji pork fritters, Maori mussel fritters at the Otara market in the cool rain, a buttie (bacon sandwich) and Polynesian donuts.
We were always hungry, because the weather and the landscape lend themselves to exercise. Just talking in New Zealand is strenuous. Try to pronounce ‘Whaipopototomomo’ah-eepoonu’ue’ without sweating.
You are often wet on the North Island. We became used to hourly shifts between soft rain and intense sun. Our uniform was sandals, bushwhacking shorts, a t-shirt, and a sweater.
My son and I, freed from the dictates and limits imposed by the fairer sex, lived like varsity students without a care. We obeyed all signs that urged us to flirt with danger.
We tackled each other silly at the Pakuranga Rugby Club, attracting the notice of a few senior players, who invited us to join their practice. We slid down through Waitakere boglands to the vast black beach at Piha and played footy with town teenagers; and swam at the even larger beach of Kerekere.
We learned to fly a 737 in an Auckland simulator; but I never could land the plane in Hong Kong. We raced youngsters on a windswept Waiheke Island beach; because sprinting is fun. We walked to ferries and then walked away from ferries. We explored, operating on a whim.
Always, when walking in a crowd, my son had to be on alert for my annoying but hilarious trick of pushing him into the most awkward of collisions (a tough guy, a nun, a pretty girl, a cop).
Being a father is the easiest and most natural of roles. A son answers all the age-old questions without complexity: why am I here, what’s my purpose, am I good enough, can I pass on the values I inherited?
Other roles are a minefield. Who can chart a path through all of it; and which relationship better allows you to preserve the fiction of might and beneficence? Until the end, I will look back fondly on this carefree time with my son in the land of the long white cloud.
When quarter-final weekend of the 2011 Rugby World Cup began, we were back in Auckland, with tickets to the England versus France arm-wrestle at Eden Park. Auckland’s docks were festooned with gigantic rugby balls, beer tents, and memorabilia shops. A lively party was in full force.
The old roast beef versus frog debate played out in many a costume, as did roosters and bankers, berets and bowler hats, the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben, ancestral knights, and other, more sinister themes about perfidious Albion. We did not see many Celtic rival fans; I am sure most Irish fans had pre-purchased the quarter-final tickets for the following day in Wellington.
We absorbed the humour and gravitas of the rivalry by walking among ribald Anglo-Franco fans from the harbour through the city, up to Mount Eden. By design or happenstance, this took us through an intriguing cross-section of the Auckland isthmus: the business sector, a synagogue, an Indian festival, strip clubs, lush parks, an Occupy protest (what on earth could the youth of Auckland need in addition to the largesse they enjoy?), acrobats, and Maori dancers. Auckland had spent $58 million on egress to Eden Park from the central city, and it showed.
The long line of fans was treated with the sight of a bouncer outside a gay strip club wearing a Wallaby jersey, kneel over and shake his bare bum for us. Why had so many leaders in New Zealand been worried that Auckland could not cope with the 133,000 foreign visitors?
We chose a Turkish pizza pub just across the railway line from Eden Park packed with French and English fans to watch the Celtic quarter-final in Wellington. The owners had purchased a lovely giant flat screen TV, but somebody had failed to beta test it. Nothing appeared on the screen. There were too many contradictory cords intertwined in Byzantine fashion. Briefly, an image flickered, but the sound cut out, and while the Englishmen just turned to their beer, the French fans were about to storm the Bastille.
We had all chosen this place to camp in; all pubs were full everywhere. We were trapped. Every employee was stupefied. My son came to the rescue; he spotted the wiring flaw. A tower of chairs and tables was created to support the antenna; peace restored. Wales looked deadly and ended Irish hopes.
By the time we descended from the pub to the Park, the night had turned cold and wet. For me, the walk into the good old stadium brought back a flood of memories: mostly it was about the cold wake up by my mother in the wee hours of Cape Town’s chill morning on the 12th of September, 1981 and the blankets and the warm porridge and cocoa as we anticipated perhaps another momentous tour victory in New Zealand in the third and deciding Test.
30 years later, as we looked at the stands from the outside, I imagined the aeroplane circling and dropping its strange flour ordinance.
For me, as a 16-year-old rugby player on the way towards higher honours, torn between my loyalties to the Boks and my acknowledgement that something had to change in South Africa and it had to change much faster than the Nationalists were allowing, I was stupefied by the scenes, even heavily censored by our producers. The anger at us was surreal, and yet, so real.
Now, we are tolerated, perhaps even welcomed by some; then, we were the unwanted and reviled rugby tribe. Back in the 70s and 80s, live Tests in Cape Town between the Boks and the great rugby powers became so rare as to take on the aura of the sacred.
Do they still want to come play us? Are we losing ground? Can we ever be normal, like New Zealand?
We had Western Province to adore; a simple train ride (or hitch hike after we were tall) or even a walk to Newlands after our own morning schools match, hopefully with a black eye, still a bit sore, and wearing rugby togs under a warm sweater as we sat on freezing student benches at pitch side: warm up with hot vinegar chips and maybe a bota bag of rum (we started early and we never stopped).
The roar of the crowd when Peter Whipp stepped through the line or an overhead quarterback-style pass by Morne du Plessis set our wings free: that sound has never left my heart.
In those days, we subsisted on violent French tours and we even welcomed the British Lions devouring us in 1974. The Lions came, lost, and went in 1980, too, but then were gone until 1997.
Now, we are tolerated, perhaps even welcomed by some; then, we were the unwanted and reviled rugby tribe. Back in the 70s and 80s, live Tests in Cape Town between the Boks and the great rugby powers became so rare as to take on the aura of the sacred.
The tour to New Zealand in 1981 was so vital to the boys who dreamed of being a Bok and still challenging the old enemy. The 1973 tour had been cancelled, the 1976 tour left a bad taste in Kiwi mouths, and South African rugby was at times reduced to playing in Wisconsin in front of 247 spectators to avoid protests.
And here I stood: looking at the most difficult place in the world for a foreign team to win. Even as we were listening to the songs of the French spreading through Eden Park, as they continued their unlikely progress through the tournament, winning 19-12, I felt a deep current of love for the long and rocky rugby relationship between South Africa and New Zealand. Definitely not a simple love of father for son; this was a melodramatic and troubled and emergency room drama but ultimately “I can’t quit you” marriage if ever there was one.
How barbaric we must have seemed to them, I thought. With their easy mix of people, their progressive political consensus, and faith in tomorrow; New Zealanders must really want to play us in rugby, or this marriage would have ended in the Sixties.
Late it was as we took a bus to the ferry to the car to the bed; a dark, pitching voyage and the memories of the collisions and the anthems and the cries to war and the anguish of defeat, echoing in our skull-capped heads.
In the morning we were to fly to Wellington. As I lay down to sleep, I pictured Jean de Villiers running hard with his head down, through James O’Connor’s desperate cover tackle.
“Let it be so.”
The rugby-decorated airport reminded us that we were in the most rugby-centric country on the planet. More rugby-mad than South Africa and Wales; maybe Samoa or Fiji could compete, but then it seemed half of those isles and Tonga was here anyway.
We found the locals to possess an astounding level of expertise: elderly women and nerds and even teenaged girls could thoughtfully analyse a ruck.
And why not fall in love with rugby? We play our code in lovely patterns, we seek little shelter, we show our anguish and joy, our coaches cannot save us with pretty play-calling, we decide the shape of the game with our own instant and interesting choices, we must all attack and defend interchangeably, except for flyhalves; we play in all conditions, our shapes are varied, and the colours of our clubs, our provinces, and our countries flow back to old rivalries and symbols.
Rugby is all I could ever want in a sporting code: bind, cohere, never relent, seek space, take your punishment, grapple and fight, but with such moments of beauty: the tip of the hand high in space winning the spiralled lineout, the perfect line by a back accepting a little inside pass, a floating drop goal headed towards uncertain destiny, the destructive tackle that forces a gasp from the crowd in unison, and the gripping vice of a goal-line scrum in extremis.
The flight from the ninth best airport in the world to the eleventh most livable city, the pint-sized capital Wellington, is only an hour. Security was light to non-existent for a domestic flight. Nobody looks at your shampoo or your shoes, and you can arrive five minutes before you fly. I asked someone: “What about terrorism?” They replied: “Why would a terrorist come here?”
Wellington is the southernmost capital in the world; it has a lovely location on the sound between the north and south islands, but every Aucklander warned us the weather would be foul, blustery, and frigid.
The day was spectacularly sunny and warm as we drove along the Parade. The promenade on Oriental Bay was full of South Africans, Aussies, and locals; luxuriating in brilliant sun. The showdown was set for 6 p.m.; plenty of time for beer and banter.
For Wellingtonians who had tickets, it was stress-free: sit back on a glorious weekend day and watch two of the All Blacks’ most dangerous rivals battle to knock each other out; in the zeitgeist of 2011 in New Zealand, maybe even Quade Cooper would literally be knocked out.
All the pre-game rugby clichés were strewn across the Dominion Post pages. The meta-narrative was Bok brutality and efficiency versus Wallaby trickery, speed, and resilience.
Some scribes used a historical angle: the Springboks and Wallabies were in the same pool in 1995: the Boks’ victory at Newlands ‘provided them with the momentum which propelled them to glory.’ Then, there was the 1999 semi-final at Twickenham, where Matt Burke and Stephen Larkham outduelled Jannie de Beer, and the ‘Aussies, buoyed by having dethroned the reigning champions, then took the title by taking France apart in the final.’ None of that was persuasive.
I looked at it as Tri-Nation Hunger Games within a World Cup. We had to survive Robbie Deans’ plot and have enough left to knock the All Blacks out in their home, on successive weekends. Bok rugby is perfectly designed to deal with a Northern Hemisphere foe in a grand final; but either Australia or South Africa would be facing a Kiwi juggernaut at home, with the Southern Cross perfectly aligned and pointing at Auckland.
For Bok fans, the rivalry with Australia is odd. I am never sure if either side takes it seriously enough, in contrast to their respective obsessions with the All Blacks. Since readmission, the Wallaby-Springbok contest has been almost even; it should be the most robust of enmities.
But it’s tame. Australian captain John Solomon was carried by Springbok players off the Newlands pitch in 1953; to a standing ovation. Perhaps we are just too friendly with each other. Maybe the mascots are to blame. A springbok fighting a wallaby? Sounds like a kiddie carnival show.
I blame the Aussies for our tepid rivalry. When the Three Amigos selfied their bromantic budgie smugglers in a hot tub, they were saying: ‘Sport is fun and so are we!’
We found a pub named the Waterloo dominated by red-faced guys from Welkom, Vereeniging, Potchefstroom, and Pretoria who looked ready to actually ruck and maul, a musically-inclined mob of fans from Sydney, Newcastle, and Richmond Tweed, and (at the bar) Capetonians, Joburgers, Aussie expats, and Queenslanders.
For two cacophonous hours, we engaged in artful insults, culminating in table-topping songs.
Settling our bar bills sobered us all. In unison, 12,000 yellow-clad Aussies and 18,000 Saffa zealots marched a mile to the 40,000-person Cake Tin trading fantastic taunts and jeers.
You can never be sure of yourself when you play Australia, because they don’t need what other Test teams need to win. There is no better team at playing off the back foot, using scraps, and finding a way to overcome the obstacles: that’s the Wallaby way and that could easily negate our South African style, which is often too formulaic and wasteful of possession.
When 7,000 Aussies and British were taken prisoner in 1942 and made to work on the Railway of Death in Thailand, with an average weight loss of 36 kilograms, the British and Dutch POWs died at rate almost 25 per cent higher than the Australian prisoners, who dealt with malnutrition, despair, anarchy, degradation, and maladies with more ingenuity, using sabotage and adaptability to survive.
Some historians have pointed to closer bonds between Aussie officers and enlisted men, comradeship, and an easier acceptance of appalling conditions. Perhaps relics of that spirit live on, even today, in the Australian competitor.
The Boks, led by a committee of senior players and a coach who catered to that cossetted coterie, were intent on dominating possession and territory by ruling the lineout, reducing the time the ball was in play, keeping the overall score down, preventing Aussie line breaks and offloads, caving in the Wallaby scrum, taking penalties on offer for metronomic Morne Steyn, and using the experience of proven winners John Smit, Victor Matfield, Jean de Villiers, Fourie du Preez, and Schalk Burger, and the punch of a bench that included in-form Bismarck du Plessis, Willem Alberts, Francois Louw, and Francois Hougaard to close out what might be a close game, no matter what.
Fortified by many a draught, we took our seats in front of lads from Perth dressed as Grim Reapers, beside a meek family from Port Elizabeth on one side and two grizzled Kiwis who disliked Cooper intensely on the other, and behind a mob of Free State golfing buddies already staggering and bleary-eyed. The sun burned us on our canary-yellow seats, and except for an early try by James Horwill from a routine Bok exit play gone wrong, the match unfolded just as expected, and precisely as Matfield, du Preez, Smit, and both of the de Villiers had hoped.
Five lineout steals by Matfield and Co, a staggering 71 kicks from hand (the Wallabies kicked more than the Boks), only two line breaks by Australia who had to work with only a third of the available possession, a highly abnormal 75% territorial advantage for the Boks, allowing a battering ram approach (twice as many metres run, three-and-a-half more passes thrown, twelve more offloads than the Wallabies) so that even if both sides tackled well (both completed about 92%) we would win by the law of averages, with maybe four or five penalty goals and an irrepressible drive over the line.
Finish en klaar, hey.
But rugby is remarkable: a couple of anamolies or a single moment can trump all the rest. When Horwill crashed over, I cursed, of course, and threatened the Grim Reapers with harm, but I was not truly concerned. With twenty minutes to go, I was bullish about the ultimate outcome.
The gain-line was ours; and the ball kept coming our way. If you keep trading haymakers but one of us gets to throw three times as many punches, I like my chances.
But there were two overriding facts: the Boks conceded 24 turnovers (with half of those rugby sins committed by senior players Burger, Smit, de Villiers, Jacque Fourie, and Matfield) and the referee who shall remain unnamed in this essay awarded only 9 penalties in total,
Only being pinged five times while winning 24 turnovers against rampant and unrelenting Bok pressure is an all-time Wallaby great achievement; it was the Burgle at the Breakdown.
Time moves so fast in Test rugby; from the 9-8 lead until O’Connor’s cold-blooded winner from the tee, the match felt like a blur. One break from de Villiers to set young Pat Lambie free for an apparent score just in front of us set our world alight: my entire body felt on fire and I was on my seat, embracing the Grim Reapers in an involuntary hug, bellowing prehistoric battle oaths into their alarmed and painted faces.
This was our time, and we will spoil this party; you don’t have to love us, but you will fear us.
But the joke was on me: the nameless referee rediscovered his eyesight and opined that de Villiers’ left-to-right pass travelled forward from his hands. The Aussie Reapers quietly cackled, as I sat stunned, my bald head resting on my good son’s shoulder; he who never boasts or complains.
One drop or penalty would still do it. Neither team looked much like scoring a try in the second half.
At times, we were just within range. Lambie’s drop attempt was not far off. A 9-8 margin felt safer than it sounds.
But Danie Rossouw didn’t mind the gap at a lineout, Pocock was an immovable and invisible object at the breakdown, and O’Conner didn’t miss, and we were out.
The Kiwis next to me told me conspiratorially: “Your lot’s getting buggered today.” The newspapers called it a “grand theft” or a “miracle.”
Smit explained it this way: “It is the first time I have lost a game on the scoreboard and won it every other way from a statistical point of view, so it makes it even harder to accept.”
Afterwards, I didn’t see it that way and even after watching the replay a few times, I don’t see it as a robbery.
Smit should never have started the game. Bismarck offered more. Burger had an incredible World Cup, but he lost the ball in contact near our goal-line and the Wallabies punished us with quick thinking by Radike Samo and McCabe. We were early on the conversion charge after the Horwill try; that was a gift. Jannie du Plessis has somehow built an innings of Bok caps despite giving opponents at least three points a game and he maintained his average. Pierre Spies, Burger and du Preez all had golden opportunities to put the game away, and de Villiers delayed his flat pass too long. And Matfield, so sure-handed at lineout, ended the game with a knock-on not caused by an official.
And Pocock was indeed that good. Deans called 23-year old Pocock “immense.” The underappreciated coach explained: “What you saw out there was the most experienced World Cup side in the world really turn the screws on the youngest. So, our boys came of age in terms of the way they accepted that challenge and stood up to it. We saw an epic World Cup encounter. Different, but that’s what makes this game what it is.”
Our much-maligned coach never really overcomplicated his post-match analyses: “Quarter-finals, semi-finals, finals, you have got to take your chances. It didn’t go our way. We didn’t take all our chances. The guys are quiet. We never expected this, so it was not a really good mood in the changing room.” In truth, ever since the end of 2009, our beloved Boks had developed habits of squandering chances for big wins.
We trudged out of the Cake Tin. The town of Wellington had grown cold almost instantaneously.
Unlike my feeling four years later, at Twickenham, when I did not want to leave, even soaked in the downpour, I wanted to fly back to Auckland; having forever associated Wellington, and its Waterloo Pub, with cruel and counter-intuitive loss.
The streets of Wellington held thousands of jubilant Aussie fans chanting Pocock’s name, he of Zimbabwean stock. We needed a room at an inn, preferably one not inundated with Queenslanders chanting “Queenslander!” A stable or a manger would do, but instead we booked in at the Intercontinental for an amount that would have made the Queen herself pause.
I wanted to fly back to Auckland; having forever associated Wellington, and its Waterloo Pub, with cruel and counter-intuitive loss
It’s a tall, hermetically-sealed structure devoid of character or charm, but it seemed to offer refuge from the Pocock chants.
The Greek word for nemesis is related to the idea of “to give what is due.” Nemesis merely was distributor of fortune; neither good nor bad, simply a proportionate outcome, that which each deserved. Our nemesis was not the referee; it was Pocock.
But why was Pocock the name chanted in the streets of Wellington, so loudly that even the top floor of the Intercontinental was not shielded? Well, firstly there is the juvenile fun of the last syllable. But there is also the matter of sheer individual brilliance.
To put Pocock’s 2011 quarter-final performance in context, let’s look at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, when he was the leading pilferer again: he won 17 turnovers to Louw’s 13 (and nobody else got to double figures in the whole competition).
In Wellington, in eighty minutes, he won nine turnovers, while also making 26 tackles.
Pocock has never had a typical Queensland story. Yes, he’s totally Australian, but Africa will forever be a part of him. Five generations of Pocock’s family have had roots in southern Africa. Once upon a time, his mother’s family’s citrus farm had 100,000 trees and 300 labourers.
His love of rugby was (in Pocock’s own words, “a very white southern African thing: you play rugby.” He played rugby from the age of five. He wasn’t allowed to play with his own age group, because he hurt his peers.
“The mums would complain,” his brother reports.
So Pocock grew used to playing against boys two or three years older than him. His dream? “Play for the Springboks.”
But at the turn of the century, President Robert Mugabe ordered white-owned land had to go to black war veterans; ‘Africa for the Africans,’ that sadly familiar refrain in post-colonial Africa.
The boy Pocock went to sleep afraid every night of the farm invasions, the murder, and the beatings by mobs.
Finally, with the sounds of chanting and gunshots nearby, Pocock and his family just grabbed what they could fit in the car, and drove to town. But even the town didn’t seem safe, when nearby friends were ambushed and killed; so the Pocock family decided to leave it all behind.
They arrived in Brisbane in 2002, with 11 suitcases. Pocock rocked up at age 14 with a “flet sethin efricen” accent, which he tried to lose as soon as possible.
“I lost the accent pretty quickly. I was sick of people asking me to say things.”
One of his brothers suffered from post-traumatic stress. David threw himself into rugby, but more as an obsession than an escape: “In my head, I had to do 450 crunches a night or else I was going to get fat. Or, like, if I didn’t do it, I was mentally weak.” When his father walked into his bedroom at midnight to find David doing sit-ups, he realised his son was struggling to cope.
But one day in Wellington, against southern Africans like himself and his own family, all of those sit-ups and all of those nutrition books he checked out from the library and all of that pain and all the weight of the loss of lands and memory and innocence were channelled into eighty minutes of granite force, and the name of his family was chanted in the beer-soaked streets.
In the Hotel Intercontinental, in our two warm beds, we woke up a few times to curse in the night; and then laugh at ourselves. We no longer heard Pocock’s name or “Aussie Aussie Aussie Oy Oy Oy.”
Instead, we heard a saxophone at 3 a.m. playing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in a slow, yet triumphant pentameter, and it was too irritating to even swear, because the power of an instrument without words is it makes you yourself sing the words in your own head, as if some ancient text has been planted in your pious brain and you are reciting words said long ago by ancestors lost and forgotten but the words remain.
I didn’t want to waltz with Matilda. But then we felt a tremor, and I suppose we both said: “Earthquake!” But it may have just been our aching hearts, although it would be odd indeed if a father and son could imagine the earth moving at the same time.
I have never learned to get used to Springbok defeats.
Back in Auckland, later in the week, we were walking in Devonport. A pizza place seemed perfect. We walked in. And there was David Pocock, with his partner.
I told him how sad he’d made me. He laughed. We posed for a picture, by his lovely partner. They both couldn’t have been nicer. If you’re going to be a nemesis, couldn’t you be a knob? So we could hate you?
New Zealand went on to win the Cup against a French team that played Bok rugby, but maybe not quite as well as the Boks could have, but we will never know if that is true, because we lost in Wellington and that is the fact.
Before we left Auckland after our ten days in New Zealand, we walked up tiny ‘Mount’ Victoria, and looked at the pleasant bay while we inspected a mighty, disappearing anti-Soviet gun.
God defended New Zealand; South Africa is usually on its own.
This is Part 2 of a two-part series of Harry Jones’ trips to World Cups. Read the first article, Losing in London, here.
Writing by Harry Jones
Design and editing by Patrick Effeney