Boks spend sweat on sorting out scrum ahead of England clash

Duane Vermeulen during the South African national rugby team training session at Latymer Lower School on October 29, 2018 in London, England.
Duane Vermeulen during the South African national rugby team training session at Latymer Lower School on October 29, 2018 in London, England.
Image: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

Some 50 minutes after the scheduled time a door opened in a subterranean room in a London hotel on Tuesday‚ and whatever light had hung low in the place was rudely shoved out of the way by two enormous sets of shoulders.

Into the suddenly charged space hulked Duane Vermeulen and Malcolm Marx‚ and with them came apologies.

“So sorry we’re late and thank you for your patience‚” the Springbok media manager said.

“Here they are‚ fresh from the training ground; you can smell the grass and the sweat on them.”

None of the reporters present were close enough to hazard an investigative sniff‚ but one was told later that “a couple of things” had delayed the press conference.

The biggest of those things‚ apparently‚ was a scrumming session that grew a mind of its own as it rumbled on for longer than planned.

And when a Bok pack gets a bee in its jockstrap about the how‚ what and why they want to do things a particular way‚ civilians like media managers had best get the hell out of the way and let matters take their own course.

Besides‚ how England bossed the set piece at a wet Newlands in June earned them their only victory in three Tests and is uncomfortably fresh in South African minds.

So the scrum is uppermost for the visitors — who will meet the men in white again at Twickenham on Saturday in the first engagement of their Northern Hemisphere tour.

“In the south it’s a different gameplan and we need to adapt to the style the English are playing‚” No. 8 Vermeulen said.

“It’s a combination of what worked for us [in the Rugby Championship] and one or two new things we can take into the game.

“If you don’t win your set piece you’re going to struggle‚ and that’s one of things we struggled with in Cape Town.”

England and style aren’t often used in the same sentence in a complementary sense. Aren’t they the epitome of Northern Hemisphere cynicism‚ a side who don’t have any ideas of their own beyond negating their opponents’ designs?

Hooker Marx concurred that England’s “style” amounted to “disrupting your gameplan and your set piece‚ and not allowing you to get out of your half”.

But ambitious teams don’t limit themselves to that kind of thinking.

“We’re focused on our plan and what we want to do‚” Marx said.

“That meant looking at what England have done in the past‚ and what we did right in the first two Tests against them and what we did wrong in the last one.”

As exceedingly polite‚ friendly and smiley as Marx and Vermeulen were — which is disconcerting when you’ve watched them wreak all sorts of barely legal violence on the field — the gathered press didn’t get too much out of them about Saturday’s game‚ which is only right and proper.

But all most English reporters want to talk about are‚ firstly‚ England players and‚ if that fails‚ players familiar to an English readership.

So‚ howbout that Schalk Brits‚ who played 144 games for Saracens along with his 11 Tests‚ and who has unretired and is back with the Boks?

“He’s hyper-active‚” Vermeulen said. “At 36 he’s like the youngest guy in the squad.”

Actually‚ hooker Brits is 37. But no-one was going to put Vermeulen right‚ especially after he was asked whether some kind of patriotic retribution was sparked by the thought of coming up against Durban-born‚ Michaelhouse-educated‚ uncapped flank Michael Rhodes — who earned 44 caps for the Sharks‚ Lions and Stormers before heading north and signing for Saracens.

Vermeulen cracked the smile of a loan shark come to collect.

“Nah‚ not really‚” he said. “It’s whoever is in front of you.

“That’s the guy you want to eliminate. It doesn’t really matter who it is.”

A chill to match the single-figure temperature outside‚ where London skulked under skies the colour of a dishcloth that could do with a wash‚ filled the room.

Suddenly‚ you could smell sweat.

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