The instruction leaving the accommodation in Cape Town to get to George was pretty straightforward, ‘turn right on to the N2 and drive’ … all 430 kilometres along the same road.
At times we — Dan Sheridan from Inpho Photography is with me — could have mimicked Fr Ted and nodded off for a while, so straight was the road. But the views are breathtaking and there isn’t a dull moment.
The famous vineyards of Stellenbosch give way to rolling but barren hills, then there are forests of fir trees which would make you think you are back in Ireland. Sheep struggle for grazing on land that hasn’t tasted water for months, then the big farms kick in and they are as green as Croke Park as the big money spent on irrigation projects pay off.
But as hour after hour tick by on this endless road through the Garden Route, what is undeniable is that this is a vast, vast country.
Take a look at a map of South Africa. George seems like it is just outside Cape Town, but there are 430 kilometres between them and as much again before you hit Port Elizabeth. And all three places seem close together in the south of the country.
Such vast distances between cities mean that heading to Europe to play in the PRO14 is not as big a deal as it is for the Irish and others heading down there. After all, Super Rugby has seen the South African sides trek to New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Argentina, all long-haul and all with big time differences.
The South Africans are used to living out of suitcases for weeks on end much more than the Europe sides but, already, a trend is emerging among the visitors.
The Cheetahs’ base in Bloemfontein brings the added difficulty of the light air in the highveld so now teams are staying in the lowlands when there is a double fixture and fly up the day before the game.
Munster flew into Cape Town on Tuesday on two flights via Dubai and were met by warm temperatures. They, too, travelled by road to George on Thursday, a hike of six or seven hours on a bus when allowing for a stop.
Next week they will again take to the road to go from Bloemfontein to Johannesburg to catch a flight to Dubai and then on to Dublin. Suddenly, heading over to Wales or Scotland for a game doesn’t seem that difficult.
But, as many players remarked this week, it’s unusual to be touring with a club or province. Most of the current crop grew up hearing stories about great club tours which disappeared when the professional era came in.
The trips to South Africa don’t look like they will be short-term either, even if on the ground most people are oblivious to the PRO14. Outside of the people from the Southern Kings and a few other individuals, nobody seemed to have heard of the competition. The competition’s marketing people clearly have a lot to do.
It was noticeable yesterday as the Outeniqua Park stadium was being prepared for today’s game, all the umbrellas and beer stands around the ground were branded in the local Castle Lager.
It’s first time that the Southern Kings have taken a PRO14 game outside Port Elizabeth, unwittingly bringing it to CJ Stander’s hometown.
Stander’s younger brother Janneman plays for the Eagles, the local club in George, and with three players in the Kings squad today, there is plenty of interest in this game.
The Kings have been getting poor crowds in Port Elizabeth and the experiment of bringing games to smaller grounds in the region looks like it will continue given the success of this venture.
Of course, having local boy CJ Stander back in town after all the success he has enjoyed in Ireland, has boosted the appeal of this fixture.
As Debbie Ellis, team operations with the Southern Kings franchise pointed out, each time they went to an outlet wondering how ticket sales were going, they were told CJ’s dad Jannie was in again and bought another bundle.
The Standers will bring over 100 workers from the family vegetable and dairy farm to the match along with neighbours and friends.
And they won’t need much help with directions either, not least as everyone in George knows where the rugby pitch is.
They will be out in force to welcome home a local lad who did well.
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