I spent Rounds 3 and 4 of the 2022 Rugby Championship in two very different Australian cities, with the median, Melbourne, in the middle.
Adelaide was brazenly Aussie. My hotel used to be a brothel and wants to be one again. At 3 or 4 in the morning, every morning, Hindley Street was packed with nauseated girls and lads ready to tumble and rumble. I kept running into people I’d saved or ruined in Cape Town. A frozen rooftop pool was my recovery tool; I ice baptized myself for all the hot sins I was going to commit Down Under.
Dinner was vindaloo at the Exeter pub with actual journos with five hot takes per glass of Coopers; wine bar after. And that was just the start, dear readers.
The locals did not seem to know there was a rugby Test in their city. Union visitors swelled their census; the contest between Shiraz and craft beer was closer than the match ended up being.
Only Cardiff presents a more compact elite sports zone. Adelaide is a small city or a big town.
Walk down the street to Bang Bang Brekkie? You’re soon part of a breakfast burger table with Adam Ashley-Cooper and Drew Mitchell. The former has even better extemporaneous chat and banter than the latter.
Take a left down the hill past the Casino and you bump into the Oval. Just as the Wallaroos left the field, the clouds departed and a bright winter sun illuminated the velvet emerald pitch.
The Wallabies had the fastest start of their year, eradicating the misery of San Juan. After 20 minutes, up 10-0 and feeling the roar of the crowd, the Springboks took a vice grip on proceedings. But Adelaide and vice are old friends. The Boks’ attack was so impotent, one wonders if they could have got a root on Hindley St done if it were free.
Twenty minutes camped in the red zone yielded three points. Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard were drunken sailors on short leave with no cash. Faf stumbled into the oldest Peaky Blinder scam in the book; the vice cops booked him and Marika Koroibete needed no second invitation to score. But the plot had taken shape before then: 11 scoring chances for the Boks: one lonely shot. The thrifty Wallabies: four of only five.
The South African squad saw it as a wasted match: in control of territory and collisions, but done by the counterattack and their own folly. A ball in the wrong hand by an airborne Makazole Mapimpi instead of an early slide with a cut inside. Faf’s gift to the gangster Nic White. An Ox Nche grounding in the wrong TV angle. Missed kicks; missed moments. A late surge by Kwagga Smith brought respectability and sewed the seeds of a second chapter in this often bitter, but underrated rivalry (the margin is only 8 or 9 in favour of South Africa after tonnes of Tests).
And so the Saffas streamed out into the red light district with red arses and green gold to spend. If most of them failed to find a sports bar with the All Blacks game on (“Sorry, no Stan,” said a man with 12 screens) it was on phones in every pub and parlour anyway.
As part of our podcast, I am locked into a sometimes therapeutic “instant reaction” just after the late match. If I had watched this loss on TV, I would have been in a glum mood. But fronting up the same night is better. Get it out. Hear the joy in Brett McKay’s voice. Laugh at Jim Tucker’s alliterative assonance in a pub as he lauded thespian White and rocket launcher Koroibete.
If that wasn’t enough to swallow, I even had another breakfast with Jim a few hours after I finally fell asleep.
My two nights in Adelaide presented a unique remedy for jet lag: just never sleep at all, hydrate the old fashioned way and eat greasy meat each meal.
Australians do not grasp how truly novel it is to fly without proving you are who you say you are. No identification for domestic flights brings back happier memories of times gone by, and shorter queues.
But I enjoyed my time at the Adelaide airport. My flight to Melbourne was close to the Boks’ to Sydney. So, I spent a lovely time chatting about citrus seeds, DNA strands of blood oranges, unique sorts of tangerines, effects of climate change on the Karoo, the dam I am building, and Ox Nche’s try with tighthead prop Frans Malherbe, who ambled through security with me the same way he does through most matches: unfazed and getting the benefit of the doubt. Ox did confirm with me (“I placed it, and then I did it again, but the touchie made a call”). Rassie Erasmus told me the plan for Sydney, but it wouldn’t please the moderator.
There was a card game with the Bomb Squad (and Faf, who just couldn’t seem to get away from cards); Nic White memes were popular whilst decks were shuffled. Turns out Vincent Koch is the surprising comedian there, and Steven Kitshoff the card shark.
The Roar’s own Geoff Parkes met me at Melbourne’s airport. You wouldn’t want anyone else to show you around that city. He knows every corner, talks to everyone, has a wide palate, can get an early tee time, and lives in St Kilda, near the Bay.
Melbourne solves problems which have not even yet become problems. Walkable, trammable, trainable, rideable and policed by the ominous “Public Order Response Group.” They needn’t bother: Melbourne has placidity baked into every green corner.
Geoff has a home shaped by music; an alcove designed for his piano. I took on his dog walking duties as my way of marking territory. We ate it all: risotto, broken oxtail mash, Mexican sopa verde, pain au raisin by a Frenchwoman, avo explosions of egg on bacon, pear tarts and pairings of red wine that made each clouded day shorter. A piano concerto lulled me to sleep; at first I thought it was on Spotify, but it was the Kiwi Wrap author himself, playing his own songs.
One of his favourite singers is Joni Mitchell, she of “Both Sides Now.” That could have been the soundtrack for my round at his club Woodlands. I smashed drivers over all the tree trouble only to find both cloudy sides of the pedestal green on one hole alone.
The actual soundtrack was provided by birds; they’re all over Melbourne on land and in the sea and air. The birds on Geoff’s golf course sound like sheep; a Kiwi would choose that track, wouldn’t he?
My time in Melbourne had one big fact looming over it. We had booked Michael Cheika for our podcast for Tuesday night, and even though landing someone of his ilk took from May to August, his appearance just happened to land right after the Pumas’ Christchurch miracle.
We’ve never had this much dress rehearsal for any episode. Go deep or wide? Steer clear or dig right in? Laud or probe?
As I walked the little dog to the reluctant beach of St Kilda each night, I contemplated our ten questions and tested them on Geoff. He told me to just be me and go with my gut.
Three minutes before Cheika joined us on Zoom, I was joining Geoff’s WiFi hotspot and trying to match left and right AirPods from three mismatched cases. Tony Harper was reminding us of key topics. And then Cheika came on and as usual, I just had fun with the guest, Brett kept us on time (or thirty minutes over) and Cheika liked it enough to just chat for ages. We could’ve gone two hours and that’s what we aim for: a relaxed guest who opens up.
With that anvil off my back, Geoff took me to talk to Dr Alan Pearce, who is leading research into the cumulative effects of contact sports on our brains. We met in a bike shop which happened to have oat milk lattes; peak Melbourne.
We visited Kevin Foote and Geoff Parling at the Rebels HQ after watching their AFL neighbours train in the rain. The size of the challenge for union in a place like Victoria is palpable: union not only has to fight league, soccer and AFL for market share, they must do it fifty yards distant, sharing the same deli and parking.
We did see evidence of union at night: nightly sports shows featured Koroibete’s tackle on the hour. It looks like a League smash, with an arm only along for the ride, not wrapped. The tackle united Australians (and it turns out, South Africans).
A tour of the Mornington Peninsula afforded me a view of smaller Australian towns: it all looked like the film “Babe.”
Next was the big sky of the Harbour City. I had an angel’s view in North Sydney directly above Luna Park.
A morning walk had to be across the bridge, every time. Does it ever get old, Sydney?
A Vietnamese bake shop in Kirribilli gave us (Machooka, Rugby Tragic, Yorkshire and me) a god’s breakfast and lunch every day.
Machooka is another perfect tour guide, but from a darker side than Geoff. The cold wet underbelly and art scene and mooring cleaning and late 80s punk scene revisited. We took a ferry to Manly to have Four Pines beers at Hotel Steyne just around the corner from the swells of the Heads and weave all these odd topics and experiences we’ve both had into a narrative. The name Steynes was an omen, I feel.
Dinner at Porteño in Surry Hills was a braai asada barbie on steroids with an ingenious tequila Old Fashioned served by a Roar reader and recently retired hooker (shout out, Nick), who made us feel like minor celebrities by approaching us to ask if we were who he thought he were, and getting our autographs. Wait, I think that was just my foreign credit card thing.
On game day, after a secret coffee rendezvous, I ran across the bridge to the Rocks and did animal movement exercises because Bok fans have to work out on Test days.
In heavy rain, I watched a fourth grade knockout match between Forest and Colleagues at Easts Rugby Club ground. It ended 8-8 with a tiebreaker sending Colleagues through. I was impressed with the scrum but not the lineout and the fact a forward went for a pilfer on every tackle. Grassroots at its most pure: the scrumhalf for Forest may have had the Colleagues’ No. 8 by a few kg.
We headed to the Waratah blue and mighty new Allianz stadium, running into Greg Clarke (who was as friendly in person as on pod) and Andrew Mehrtens (late and in a rush). Thankfully, the All Black backlash in Hamilton was shown on the big screen.
The ‘100% drip line roof’ design is about 70% true; and our seats on Row C were made for Harold Holt. But the food: falafel, Harissa fries, scalloped potatoes, gourmet burgers, and $2.90 sauce packets. Very Sydney rugby, no?
After the Pumas took 50 points all we could think was: how lucky were we to book Cheika when we did? Twitter agreed with this thought. It’s one thing to beat New Zealand once; it’s quite another to endure their quiet revenge rage. And then the fireworks started for 40,000 or so paying spectators (Saffas numbered about 5,000, I reckon) before anthems and giant flags and video tributes of days gone by.
Absolutely no version of Sweet Caroline was played; it was pump-a-jump house music all night long, with one tiny Waltzing Matilda at halftime.
True to form, a brutally (and finally truly first choice) selected Bok pack of Malherbe, Marx, Kitshoff, Etzebeth, de Jager, Kolisi, Mostert and Wiese bludgeoned the kickoff, tackle point, breakdown, ruck, maul and clean out, controlling time and space so that it was thirty minutes in before the Wallabies had a meaningful set of possessions.
It was only 10-3 but felt like a mountain to climb until Canan Moodie announced his Test career with an easy leap over Koroibete and canter to the line. Vice captain Etzebeth completed 7 passes with two offloads leading to tries; better passing stats than Wallaby backs 11-15. Big Franco Mostert finished a multi-faceted, shape-shifting attack to score 20 metres from us, despite a Fraser McReight seatbelt, causing a drunken loud lad behind us to throw his sodden phone on the pitch. He did not grow happier with the posing, taunting Mapimpi’s try (he who that same beer-soaked bloke had been sledging all first half) through struggling Koroibete. The ‘optical fight’ that followed caused the loudest home roar all night.
It’s a tricky thing to be a visiting fan in a sea of gold celebrating with the one bald Bok fan a row in front of you. It was also my birthday, so I had to control myself: I’m a good loser and a terrible winner. I hope I kept my dignity, but Machooka and Rugby Tragic can be the jury.
The Instant Reaction pod was back in North Sydney and a polar opposite of a week before, just like this Luna Park roller coaster season.
One more perfect pie and I was gone in the morning.
Australia had me at Adelaide, then it pavlovaed me with Melbourne, and sealed the deal with Sydney’s magic.
See you in December.
Rugby – The Roar