November in the UK is rugby month! For more than 100 years, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand have toured these shores over the winter months. Unlike in 1951-1952 when the Springboks toured from early October until the middle of February and played 31 matches, in this age of professional rugby the Boks tour for no more than four weeks, always in November and play three or four matches against a combination of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France or Italy (playing each country only one).
In case you’re wondering, the Boks won the grand slam that year by beating all four home UK unions and they also beat France!
Since visiting the UK in 2010 and then moving here in 2012, my rugby track-record is a fairly impressive one and reads:
- England (Twickenham, London) – Watched 2, Won 2
- Scotland (Murrayfield, Edinburgh) – Watched 3, Won 2
- Ireland (Aviva Stadium, Dublin) – Watched 2, Won 1
- Wales (Millenium Stadium, Cardiff) – Watched and won 1
- Italy (Stadia Euganeo, Padova) – Watched and won 1
Although the Boks have been awful all year; with first time defeats against Ireland at home, Argentina away and a record loss to the old foe, New Zealand we’ll never stop following them wherever we can. Following South African sport-teams is one of my passions in life.
Watching us play well is obviously preferred but never a pre-requisite and these weekends are always more than just the rugby. They’re about the experience shared with great friends, making new friends and of course travelling to new cities or further exploring those we’ve visited before.
The Boks began their end of year tour with a heavy loss to England, our first in 10 years. While it’s always a wonderful experience watching rugby at Twickers, we decided to skip this game primarily because it’s almost impossible to get face-value tickets but also because even where you can they’re ridiculously expensive. For the same price as a Bok – England ticket, we were able to buy our Italian match ticket, flight to Pisa and accommodation for the weekend!
We flew into Pisa, an easy 1 hour train-ride from Florence, as flights were significantly cheaper. Pisa isn’t particularly inspiring and visiting en-route was perfect – we enjoyed a few beers out and about on Friday night before walking over to see the tower on Saturday morning. The tower was more beautiful than I was expecting and quite something to see how wonky it is! You wonder how it’s still standing after some 900 years.
Arriving around noon in Firenze, we dropped our our bags at the phenomenal Academy hostel, located just off the main piazza, and made our way to the stadium. As always, a loud group of chanting and dressed up Saffas attracted heaps of attention and everyone we met, and posed for pictures with, was incredibly friendly. We even had our 2 minutes on Italian TV!
The stadium itself, much like the rugby, was very average. It felt more like a local league stadium, rather than a Serie A football stadium, and although it wasn’t full there was a great atmosphere with fans believing this may be the year they finally beat us. And they were right.
From a Bok perspective, the rugby was a disaster and the less said about the game the better! All credit to the Italians who defended with their lives but Bok rugby is in a huge mess at the moment and our worst year in history continued with our first ever loss to Italy. There doesn’t appear to be any game plan and players are obviously super low on confidence. A huge contributing factor to our steadily worsening performances is that is our structures don’t put Bok rugby above all else. Unlike in NZ where the NZ rugby board pays all salaries and everyone works toward a common goal, in SA individual unions pay salaries so coaches do what’s best for their province, not the Boks.
After watching us lose to Japan at RWC 2015, which at least was an entertaining game of rugby, we’re continuing to be witnessing the wrong kind of history.
But I think that’s enough said about the rugby!
In contrast to Pisa, Florence is a city I’d happily spend more time in. It’s a beautiful city and though there is of course heaps to see, part of the city’s appeal is simply wandering through its cobbled streets. There’s a delicious gelato to be enjoyed on virtually every corner and definitely no shortage of restaurants and shops.
We had no intention of rushing all day Sunday, preferring to wander and see what we discovered. Popping up on any must-see list is of course the stunning red-domed Duemo, the Cattedral di Santa Maria del Fiore. What you first notice is its sheer size, it’s the largest brick dome ever constructed, though when you get close you also realise the exquisite detail on every brick.
While we didn’t visit the Uffizi gallery, I would definitely recommend visiting the Galleria dell’Academia to see the magnificent David and it’s well worth paying a few extra € to buy tickets online to avoid the queue. We also headed to Piazza Michaelangelo for this stunning view of the city.
Finally a word on the ice cream and food in general … uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnnnn
As for the ice cream, follow the advice of your waiter and regardless of where they suggest, it won’t disappoint. The Boks, however, are sadly a different story.