England in SA
Ellis Park: Still Bok fortress
Cape Town - Experiencing a Springbok Test match from the very heart of the cauldron itself only reminds you most powerfully: warts and all, Ellis Park remains a genuine stronghold for the national team.
It is officially Coca-Cola Park these days in a local context, of course, although the rest of the rugby planet, whether public or press, almost unanimously still brands it Ellis Park, no doubt at least partly in awe of its heritage.
Even sitting in the unenclosed media centre, as the Highveld temperature dips disconcertingly with every minute in the smoky dusk, is a daunting experience, the steep angle of the main stand leaving you just a little fearful that at some stage you might cop a spray of brandy or beer from some high-altitude joker onto your laptop as the rugby bedlam cranks up.
Saturday only confirmed, too, especially in their ferocious first-half assault, how the Springboks get an unmistakable buzz from a venue that will forever be associated with that impossible-to-top moment in 1995 when Francois Pienaar, not unassisted by a certain Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, hoisted aloft the spoils from South Africa’s maiden World Cup.
The noise, the hostility, the crudeness (at least in good measure, if not all-embracingly) from a Highveld crowd in excess of 60 000 ... it is a testosterone tool of quite noticeable magnitude to the Boks.
With their series-clinching triumph over England, South Africa’s statistical track record at the ground swells ever more positively too: 31 wins from 44 starts there (two draws) cranks up the home win percentage into the early seventies.
That it is a frigid place, in broadest sense, to visiting teams also hardly escapes your observation.
England seemed to find the atmosphere, as much as the concerted Bok physicality, almost too much to bear in those crucial first 40 minutes or so. When their butterflies did settle - and quite commendably so - it was too late for them to halt the slide to defeat.
The Ellis Park factor was eloquently picked up on by Mick Cleary, long-serving senior rugby scribe for the Daily Telegraph who, in assessing the debut in the run-on XV of England centre Jonathan Joseph, noted that he had undergone a worthwhile “postgraduate degree in suffering in Johannesburg”.
Cleary added: “Unless you know what it is like to be beasted by South Africa at Ellis Park in front of 60,000 baying, crowing South Africans, then your education is not complete.
“This was raw, ferocious, in-your-face rugby being played out in the badlands of downtown Johannesburg. Never mind rugby heaven, this was rugby hell.”
The future of the Super Rugby franchise who use Coca-Cola Park as their home base, the Lions, is shrouded in doubt - keep in mind that even before the frenzied debate around the intended fast-tracking of the Southern Kings, there had been rumours of the provincial union forsaking the place, partly based on the increasingly less than salubrious nature of the suburbs enveloping it.
Be all that as it may, somehow it is tempting to view that as simply a further part of the stadium’s strange allure, an extension of its earthy aura.
Yes, I find it hard not to quietly hope the tumult around the Lions won’t necessarily affect the ground’s status as a profitable epicentre of Springbok machismo ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing