As clear as mud
The Millennium Stadium in Cardiff is a white elephant. It is a constant reminder of the fact that rugby administrators can get into trouble when they take themselves too seriously.
On Saturday about 72 500 people are expected to attend the match between Wales and South Africa, but such was the financial debacle surrounding its construction, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) needs to fill the stadium every month just to pay back the interest on the loan.
The old Cardiff Arms Park was deemed too old and too small. The WRU saw that there was money being thrown the way of sports venues by the UK Lottery and hit upon a scheme to move from the centre of town down to the docks, near to where Shirley Bassey was born and Colin Charvis’s dad came ashore to meet, albeit briefly, Charvis’s mum.
The snag was that while the UK Lottery does set aside vast sums of money from its profits for the
building of sport and recreation facilities, it expects proper business plans and at least 50% of the total cost needs to be covered by the applicant.
The WRU failed to take this into account and was shocked when its application for funding was turned down.
It meant that instead of moving it had to find a way to upgrade the Arms Park.
To try to raise money it sold parts of the hallowed turf to interested parties. It is said that the point beyond the tryline where Gareth Edwards scored his famous try for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973 attracted the largest donation.
Whether the rugby gods objected to such rampant desecration and commercialism is a moot point, but there is a certain irony in the fact that from that day, the Millennium Stadium has been a magnificent venue with a ropy pitch.
At the 1999 World Cup the Springboks beat the All Blacks on a particularly poor Millennium Stadium pitch. Two days later on the same grassless, mud patch, France lost to Australia in the final. In between the two games the pitch was supposed to be rolled out on pallets and replaced with a new one grown especially for the occasion at the local Royal Air Force base. But the WRU went bankrupt during the tournament and couldn’t afford it.
These are the kinds of stories that get swept under the carpet by administrators seeking immortality.
Expect a slew of them in this country in the aftermath of the 2010 Soccer World Cup. But don’t expect to find anyone willing to accept the blame.
On July 7 1999 the Millennium Stadium hosted its first game of rugby. A total of 27 000 people were allowed into the half-finished monolith, although the true number should also include the many people in hard hats who continued construction work while history was made on the pitch.
The visitors were the Springboks, led by Gary Teichmann and coached by Nick Mallett. It was a powerful side, no more than nine months removed from the one that went 17 games without defeat. But events conspired against them and they lost to Wales for the first, and so far the only, time in their history.
There was dissent within the team because the coaching panel, particularly Mallett’s assistant, Allan Solomons, was questioning the captaincy of Teichmann.
But things really came to a head when Rian Oberholzer flew in from South Africa to spell out the union’s policy on transformation.
How soon we forget, but the team that lost to Wales was the last all-white Springbok selection. That’s a sobering thought in the week that the South African Rugby Union (Saru) voted to downgrade the importance of the Springbok emblem on the team jersey.
By contrast Peter de Villiers’s selection for this week’s game contains five players of colour with three more on the bench.
These days it seems like tokenism to even mention the racial balance of the side, but that’s how far we have come. Ten years ago Mallett couldn’t bring himself to select the great Breyton Paulse on the wing.
When he eventually gave Paulse a start, he created and scored the try that beat New Zealand in the third place play-off game at the World Cup.
A decade later only the politicians who, like Palin’s ex-leper, are never satisfied carp about the amount of black in the green and gold.
De Villiers’s legacy is that his critics are able to criticise him as a rugby coach and analyst rather than as a champion of integration.
We have all had a chance to voice dissatisfaction at the decision to play Ruan Pienaar and John Smit out
Neither selection distorts the fact that this is a fine Springbok team that should have relatively little to fear from a Welsh team that it saw off in two Tests here in June.
It will be incumbent on the outside backs to find a way to contain Shane Williams, the diminutive Welsh left wing. It will be equally important for Schalk Burger to return to something approaching top form to stop Martyn Williams gorging himself on loose ball at the tackle and ruck.
Elsewhere there is not too much to worry about. The return of Bakkies Botha should galvanise Victor Matfield and the potential for the Smit experiment to implode has been countered by the selection of two props on the bench.
In fact the bench is one of the best things about this team, containing as it does players of the calibre of Ryan Kankowski, Jacque Fourie and Frans Steyn.
A strong case can be made that all three should have been in the starting line-up, but with two Tests to come each will have his opportunity.
De Villiers was correct not to meddle with his midfield partnership at this stage. Adi Jacobs has had a remarkable return to Test rugby after six years in the wilderness.
Time alone will tell if the coach knows something about Smit and Pienaar that his critics do not.