Rugby World Cup: Inside South Africa camp ahead of Scotland clash - locals onside, Napoleonic trail, old friends
Welcome signs are dotted around and, for now, the locals are happy to lend support to their illustrious guests. That may change if France end up meeting South Africa in the quarter-finals but everything is sweetness and light before the tournament begins.
Over at the opulent Grand Hôtel des Sablettes, the players and staff mingle with other guests as a pianola plays in the lobby. There is a private path to the beach if any of the squad fancy a dip in the Mediterranean. Down in the hotel’s basement, Boks veteran Duane Vermeulen is extolling the virtues of Finn Russell, noting that he and his team-mates will need to do all in their power to stop the “magician” opening his box of tricks when they face Scotland in Marseille on Sunday. Rassie Erasmus, South Africa’s director of rugby, flits in and out of the press conference without saying a word, happy to let Vermeulen and assistant coach Deon Davids do the talking on this occasion.
The match at Stade Velodrome is the first of this tournament for both sides and South Africa are determined to avoid an upset as they begin the defence of the trophy they won in Japan four years ago. They lost their opening game at each of the last two World Cups but arrive at this tournament on the back of a stunning 35-7 win over New Zealand at Twickenham and there is a relaxed feel around the squad. They travelled to their World Cup base on Sunday morning, taking a ten-and-a-half-hour overnight ferry from Corsica where they had spent some time training post-All Blacks filleting.
Having left Napoleon’s birthplace, they now find themselves in another landmark location in the great leader’s history. The Siege of Toulon was one of his early military successes as he helped Republican forces against Royalist rebels supported by England and Spain. He ended up building a fortification at La Seyne, now known as Fort Napoleon. It is unlikely Bonapartism will play much part in South Africa’s philosophy over the next few weeks as they look to build a campaign which culminates in a record-breaking fourth World Cup success. The holders rarely make any secret of the way they want to play the game. They have big men and they will use them to try and win supremacy up front against a Scotland side who will attempt to up the tempo wherever possible.
“Every team has their strengths and their weaknesses,” noted Davids who has worked with current Scotland players WP Nel, Pierre Schoeman and Duhan van der Merwe in a long coaching career. “Nothing changes in terms of how we approach the game and knowing where our strengths are. Scotland play a brand of rugby that obviously works for them. You can see that in their past few results and how they have performed. We have to be the best in how we do stuff, and it’s up to us to be able to handle whatever they throw at us.”
Davids painted an upbeat picture of the squad’s preparations as they prepare for a group stage that will see them play Romania in Bordeaux, Ireland in Paris and Tonga in Marseille after their Pool B opener against the Scots. “At this stage, everything is really going well,” he said. “We had a fantastic camp in Corsica: great people, great experience. It was a bit hot out there but the guys adapted well to that. We got through our training sessions very well and it was good we were exposed to that. Coming here, we are experiencing the same conditions. We’ve settled in and we are just focused on this lovely opportunity this week. Everyone is excited, a bit nervous, but excited and looking forward.”
The prospect of taking on Scotland’s South African-born contingent didn’t seem to overly concern Davids who is a former head coach of the Southern Kings in the old Pro14. “There will be a good welcome in terms of playing against each other,” he said. “We are used to it. It’s nothing new. We are just looking forward to playing against Scotland as a team.”
Davids did have some warm(ish) words for Nel, the 37-year-old Scotland prop who qualified on residency grounds back in 2015 and now has 56 caps for his adopted nation. Davids had him under his charge at Boland Cavaliers, Currie Cup stalwarts based in Western Cape, back in the Noughties.
“From an early age, WP Nel showed that he had the ability to play at the highest level. I’m glad that it worked out for him,” said Davids. “He made the decision and had an opportunity to play international rugby. For him to still be part of the team, still be competing at this stage and in this competition, it’s proof of his ability. He will be one of many players in the Scotland team who will give a good account of themselves. For us, we have to focus on ourselves and the way we do stuff. We need to ensure that we are well prepared in order to be competitive.
“Nothing will change in the way we approach each game because they are all important for is. Our focus now is Scotland and then we will shift to the next game and the players understand that. This game is about being dominant and using your opportunity and being aligned with the things you want to change. If you combine that it will bring out the character that you want in the game.”
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