Adam Hathaway, rugby correspondent of The People, welcomes the silly season by recalling one of the craziest training camps of all-time and welcomes a new hero of Super Rugby.
It is currently the silly season for national newspapers, at the front at least, with all the politicians sunning themselves and the House of Commons in recess, the hacks struggle for proper stories and the papers are full of Big Brother nonsense and house price warnings. Next up it will be butter is good for you, followed by butter is bad for you followed by how we are all going to die because of global warming shortly followed by how we are all going to freeze to death this winter. In short it is a load of utter cobblers.
It is a bit different at the back of the papers at the moment. There is an Olympics going on, with the associated drugs hell stories, a brilliant Test series against Pakistan and the great beast of football has popped its head over the parapet after about a day in hibernation in the last two decades.
So it was good to see rugby entering into the spirit of silly season with the following offering from the Daily Record which brought back memories of some of the sport’s most bizarre training camps.
According to Jim Hamilton, the former second row, Scotland coach Vern Cotter made the squad find their own supper on a training camp in France ahead of the last World Cup by killing rabbits for the pot. Four players, Hamilton told the podcast The Rugby Pod, said they did not fancy garrotting and chopping up bunnies, with a clove of wild garlic, for an al fresco stew so Cotter told them they were the ones to do it. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and all that.
The Record then quoted the predictable outrage of animal rights campaigners but the last time I looked the ability to skin Bugs Bunny did not make someone better at converting a two-on-one overlap or help them knock over a last-minute drop goal.
We have been here before with bizarre training camps. In 1980 the All Blacks tried to hone their passing by practising with house bricks, instead of something called a rugby ball, ahead of a Test against Australia in Sydney – they lost 13-9 and were dubbed the All Bricks by the Aussie media.
More recently England’s back-room staff embarked on a weird horse-whispering day out ahead of the last World Cup – and we all know what happened there.
Clive Woodward had his fair share of off-the-wall methods. But generally his sides did the business and if you win then everything you do is correct, you are a complete genius and the latest reincarnation of Carwyn James.
But if you lose you are bonkers – just ask Rudi Straeuli who was coach of South Africa ahead of the 2003 World Cup but not for much longer after they crashed out of the tournament.
Straeuli had seen his Springbok teamed completely duffed up by England at Twickenham in 2002, when the Boks had started the fisticuffs and ended up on the wrong end of a 50-point hiding. So, with the two teams in the same pool at the World Cup in Australia, something had to be done.
The coach came up with Kamp Staaldraad – Afrikaans for ‘Camp of Barbed Wire’ – in Thabazimbi in South Africa’s Limpopo province and as madcap preparations go it was right up there.
The Boks were holed up in a police camp for days and some of the stuff they went through would send most professional sportsmen scurrying to their agents and asking if they were eligible to play for someone else.
Joost van der Westhuizen, Corne Krige and the rest of the South African squad were forced to get into foxholes and sing the South African national anthem naked. When they were in the hole they had recordings of God Save the Queen and the New Zealand haka piped into them and there were reports of players being forced to crawl under barbed wire whilst live rounds of ammunition were shot across their bows. It might be handy if you are about to go into a warzone but a group match against the England of Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson, in Perth, probably demanded something a bit more rugby-related.
It was like asking the people who man the tills at your local off-licence to go off and do a weekend of snake-hunting to help them get the two-for-one offers on dodgy wine correct. Madness.
As Bakkies Botha, the legendary second row and a bloke who can handle himself in the wilderness, said: “Back in 2003 after being in Kamp Staaldraad – we were frightened to do anything that we thought might upset the coach.” For the record, Botha was South Africa’s greatest enforcer on the rugby pitch since Frik du Preez and even he was running scared.
If you really must look there are pictures of the Bok players in the buff, on the internet, whilst they are being humiliated ahead of the world game’s biggest get-together. These camps are supposed to help bond teams but this one ripped the team in the guts like the insides of one of Cotter’s rabbits.
Mark Keohane, who worked for the Boks as a press officer between 2000 and 2003, exposed the fiasco in his book Springbok Rugby Uncovered, after the resignation of Straeuli and to say he was not flavour of the month with the Bok hierarchy, for this and other stories, would be a massive understatement.
The Boks predictably tried to cover all the stuff up but these things get out – especially when you lose to England in a group game and get turned over by the All Blacks in the knock-out stages. Win and no-one gives a stuff if you have been training in tutus.
Some reports have suggested the whistle blower was the Dale McDermott, who was the Springboks video analyst, and who was found dead after a suspected suicide in 2005. It was a tragic ending to one of the most ridiculous camps in rugby.
If coaches really want their teams to bond they should follow the Fran Cotton model ahead of the British Lions’ tour to South Africa in 1997. Team manager Cotton, mindful that the Welsh, Irish, Scots and English had been knocking seven bells out of each other in the Six Nations hired a pub, locked them in and told them to get on with it.
That touring team did their fair share of jumping on crates and high-wire tricks but the one the winning tourists talk about most is their night in the boozer when they got to know each other. A lesson there for the next clot who tries to be too clever by half.
As we have noted here before the format of the Super Rugby tournament that finished on Saturday was enough to give Stephen Hawking a brain fade but it would probably cough up the correct winner in the end.
And sure enough, the right victors did emerge when the Hurricanes beat the Lions 20-3 in the final in Wellington although the South African side did not have the best preparation as they had to fly from Johannesburg to New Zealand in the week of the biggest match in their history.
The Hurricanes won the title for the first time in 20-odd years of trying and they managed to do it without players such as Conrad Smith, Jeremy Thrush and Ma’a Nonu who cashed in their Kiwi chips last season and headed to Europe.
Sure they had Beauden Barrett – now a certainty to start at 10 for the All Blacks and the player of the competition – and the likes of Cory Jane on the wing and Ardie Savea on the flank. You will be hearing a lot more about Savea whose brother Julian was banished to the bench on Saturday despite 39 tries in 43 Tests for the All Blacks. Captain and hooker Dane Coles also played on during the final despite suffering a painful rib injury in the quarter-final match-up against Stormers.
But they also had a loose head prop called Loni Uhila who has been dubbed ‘the Tongan Bear’ for his looks and prowess on the pitch. And he nearly didn’t make it at all.
Uhila, who weighs a mere 122kg and has had a couple of professional boxing bouts, is 27 now but at the start of last year was still playing for Waikato in the Mitre 10 Cup, the National Provincial Championship in old money, and Super Rugby looked a million miles off. Apart from anything else he didn’t like scrummaging which for a Tongan prop is a bit like saying he doesn’t fancy a trip to the buffet counter.
He was working in a warehouse when the chance came to play for the Hurricanes and he has taken it with both hands and the fans at the Cake Tin in Wellington have taken him to their hearts. Uhila could easily have jacked it all in but he did not and his story is a lesson for anyone in rugby who reckons they have hit the glass ceiling.