Sporting history is full of encounters that have had added significance. Waterpolo still talks of the bloody pool at the1956 Melbourne Olympics when Hungary clashed with the Soviet Union. It is said that the reports of a red pool were exaggerations, but it was extremely violent nonetheless.
From the off there were kicks and punches and with a minute to go, and Hungary leading 4-0, a Russian called Propokov punched a Hungarian called Zador, who had scored two goals. Zador exited and his bleeding was too much for many in the crowd who stormed the area beside the pool to shout at and spit at the Russians. The police intervened, the game ended early and the Hungarians were awarded the win and went on to take gold against Yugoslavia. The key fact is that the game took place against the background of the Hungarian Revolution and ruthless reaction of the Soviets. Tanks rolled in and many were killed. This had happened mere weeks before the Olympics. Hence the game had meaning far beyond sport.
In 1969, there was a brief war fought between El Salvador and Honduras. Existing tensions between the countries coincided with rioting during a World Cup qualifier for the 1970 World Cup. It is known as the Soccer War. There were all sorts of issues, including migration, trade and border land disputes, but it wasn’t until the best of three World Cup qualifiers in 1969, that the tipping point was reached. Honduras won the first game 1-0, El Salvador drew level with a 3-0 in the second, and the decider was another victory for El Salvador, 3-2 after extra time. Imagine taking a penalty under those conditions.
West Germany hosted and won their home World Cup in 1974. In the Group stages they were paired with East Germany. It was the height of the Cold War and prestige, and even political doctrine, was at stake. Thank goodness both had already qualified when they met but there was still massive, politically charged, tension. In the end a late Jurgen Sparwasser goal gave the Communists a shock win. In fact the embarrassing result forced changes to the German team that many believe led to their ultimate victory. It’s hard to believe now that Germany was once thus divided. Remember Ronald Reagan? “ Mr Gorbachov, tear down your wall!”
Ireland vs the Springboks has a lot more than rugby riding on it. Last week I registered my fears about the recommendation of South Africa to host the Rugby World Cup. Since then both France and Ireland have indicated that they are not happy with some of the experts’ findings. In particular the high rating of safety and security in South Africa was roundly criticised. Of course there are massive issues in South Africa but, drilling down, most violent crime is of a domestic nature. That is tragic but hugely significant in the safety of tourists at a world event. Look at 2010. The only acts of crime were from that Argentinian pick pocket syndicate that was picked up and expelled. We have stepped up to the security plate before and that counted.
When there are three good bids on the table there will be two unhappy losers. Intense lobbying will be taking place right now. If the vote contradicts the recommendation we will be as furious as Ireland and France are now.
The point is that in the middle of this we play Ireland in Dublin. Both teams will feel that they are proxies for the bid. Add to that the sad fact that Boks and Irish players are not especially close and there is the recipe for tension. Remember the battles in 2007? Remember Jake White’s clumsy comments in Ireland? Remember the try by Ronan O’Gara? At board level we have not, apparently, been close either. It’s sad but true.
Ireland have one of the best coaches in the world in Joe Schmidt. They are drilled to perfection and have a world class pair of controlling halves. There are few weaknesses in the Irish side and many will be boosted by Lions’ lessons from New Zealand. Thy also feel they missed a chance of a series win here last year. We have a pack that, when ignited, can dominate and hurt the very best. However, out wide we still do not look convincing at all. In interviews this week we talk about countering Irish innovation rather than stressing our own. When are we going to cut loose in attack? That’s what I want to see.
It will be a hell of a game with more than just the result at stake. That is human, and sporting, nature. Let’s hope it doesn’t get out of hand. Let’s also hope that we can focus on the development of our expansive attacking play rather than just depending on our forwards and our defence.
Regardless of who hosts in 2023, we have a date with New Zealand four years earlier.