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Friday, October 7, 2022

Heaving mass of Springbok fans can break All Blacks’ spirit at Ellis Park

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Johannesburg – There are no picturesque backdrops here, no ocean views, stretches of white sand beaches nearby, flat-topped mountains with a rolling blanket of cotton-banked clouds, nor manicured grass lawns of suburbia.

No, you will find none of that around the precinct of Ellis Park.

Instead, you will witness the works of the everyday man and the metropolitan sprawl of concrete, iron and urban decay; the faint sense of despair associated with all inner cities; a boiling pot of cultures, ideas, traditions; but also, the murmur of hope intertwined within quotidian activities.

Ellis Park is not situated in any green-leafed neighbourhood or new and exciting development. It sits within a depression barely visible until it is upon you, hidden by factories with their weatherworn zinc roofing and battered buildings coated by dirt and grime which have filled up every pore of their frayed brick-faces.

Once it comes into view, the brutalist design of concrete and ribbed steel overtakes the senses, and when you sit within it, you are cocooned by the masonary of its overbearing architecture. First constructed in 1927 – the current stadium was built in 1982 – the site where Ellis Park is built was originally a dumping ground.

The facetious amongst us will argue that it remains so, but the truth is there is something quite singular about Ellis Park. Former Bok captain John Smit summed up the stadium best in his autobiography, Captain in the Cauldron.

“Ellis Park,” he wrote, “is such a special place for the Boks and hell on earth for the visiting teams.

“It’s no secret that they feel like they are stepping into a lost valley in hillbilly country. Opponents have told us over a beer how they get a sinking feeling as the bus gets further away from the comfort of their Sandton hotel and passes through the dodgy, run-down areas surrounding the stadium.

“We’ve heard of fans spitting and banging on their bus as it enters the ground.

“Inside, the stadium is so well designed that the crowd sits on top of you and gets totally involved in the game. The fans really let rip and at the risk of sounding snobbish, there’s something scary about a lot of them.

“The Aussies reckon Ellis Park is straight off The Jerry Springer Show and that the fans look almost capable of murder.”

The All Blacks will travel to this beast of a stadium on Saturday for the 15th time, after losing their opening match of the Rugby Championship 26-10 in the relatively benign surroundings of Mbombela Stadium. Their record at the hallowed ground is decent, if not spectacular – they have won five matches there, including the first encounter in 1928 and the last Test played between the two nations in 2015.

New Zealand teams of previous years had also, arguably, lost a degree of respect for this monolith, mainly due to the ever-present incursion of their Super Rugby teams.

This year will be different though. This year the beast that can seat 62 000 raving spectators could possibly consume them and break their spirits. If the altitude at 1 700m-plus doesn’t finish them, then that heaving mass will.

Very few of the All Blacks that will venture forth from their comfortable abode north of the city, will have played a Test match at Ellis Park and the majority of their players will be unfamiliar with the stadium and its intense cacophony.

Indeed, of their touring squad only Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Sam Whitelock, Dane Coles and Codie Taylor have played in Johannesburg at the famous stadium. They will be the keepers of their team spirit as they depart into the heart of the city.

One could make the same argument regarding the Boks, but they will know what to expect, and will also have a highly partisan support-base that has not seen a Bok victory at the venue in eight years, willing them on, baying for blood and triumph.

The All Blacks hope to bounce back this weekend. I can’t see it happening – not with this Bok team and Ellis Park standing in their way.

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