Toulon – Just on the outskirts of Toulon, beyond the wrinkle in the earth that holds the inner city in an oyster, there is a family-owned vineyard.
Vignoble Kennel has survived time and ruin, and has sparred with the growing commercialism of industry, to remain independent and produce biodynamic wine fermented with the craft of generations, the care of understanding and the natural world as its partner.
Its hosts welcome those who enter their homestead with a smile and enthusiasm, uncorked whites, rose and reds at the ready for at first a modest thimble of appreciation and then a few moments later, a longer draw of enjoyment and merriment. But this is Toulon, and Toulon is rugby country; and it doesn't take long before the banter turns to France versus Springboks.
The Boks have not lost to the Les Blues since 2010, and are on a seven-match unbeaten run. They will face the No 2 team in the world on Saturday in a dress rehearsal for the Rugby World Cup next year – which will also be hosted by France.
Walk of fame into Stade Mayol, home of Toulon, for @Springboks Captain’s Run. Plenty of familiar names who have contributed hugely to the club’s success over time. @SuperSportTV pic.twitter.com/OFJGACaOPh
— Matt Pearce (@MattP555) November 11, 2022
But now, with cheeky smiles, and flushed cheeks happy with wine, the jesting begins. A toast punctuated with “To the Boks” is met with a giggle of derision, a prediction of a 35-3 French clean sweep with snickers of exasperation.
The musing has begun and the names of yore that battled each other on either side are plucked from the annals of time, while previous meetings are remembered with fondness. South Africans, being so far removed at the tip of our continent, can be somewhat insular in their opinion of rugby.
We looked at ourselves, and New Zealand, as the torch-bearers of the game, guarding it with suspicion of other nations. It is then somewhat strange, somewhat refreshing, and somewhat pleasing to discuss and debate the game far afield with the same passion and vigour of home.
There was justifiable anger from South Africans when France was chosen as hosts of the 2023 showpiece event, but walking through the age-old streets of Toulon’s medieval quarter; talking to the metropolitan locals of Marseille, and there is a growing confidence that what will be offered from September onwards in 2023, will be spectacular.
Accordingly, the Local Organising Committee of the event insisted that all is in order.
“If the event was tomorrow, we would be ready to host it,” the vice-president of Rugby France, Henri Mondino, says confidently through translation. The Stade Velodrome here in Marseille will then play an important test of that belief.
There will be a sizeable contingent of South Africans at the game. Already on Thursday night, with a bank holiday to follow, the distinct tone, look, and gait that identifies Boks supporters could be discerned amongst the throng of young French revellers and wizened people-watchers on the concourse that sits astride the marina of the city.
They were enjoying the moment. They will do so on Friday night with another few ‘brewskies’ in hand. But on Saturday, this entire region will pivot to the real business – the rugby – and then much like the fine spirits on order, the debate will flow.