A rider from another planet, and a rugby calendar at sixes and sevens


A rider from another planet, and a rugby calendar at sixes and sevens

Unless this year's Tour de France winner, Jonas Vingegaard, tearfully confesses to Oprah like Lance Armstrong, LOUIS DE VILLIERS is pretty convinced he isn't bending the rules. And the new rugby sevens calendar is causing him anxiety.


ONE of my favourite singers died last week, and I'm starting to suspect that one of my favourite sports might be on its way out too.

But you know, I'm dying for a tune and here the selfsame Jane Birkin sings about her loneliness in Los Angeles after she and Serge Gainsbourg broke up. Running away from happiness because you're afraid it can't last. 

The sport?

By now, sevens rugby differs completely from the 15-player version, but World Rugby's announcement of the new international sevens calendar has caused me some anxiety.

The same damn Los Angeles is indeed one of the eight “iconic" hosts (the others are Vancouver, Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong, Cape Town, Perth and Madrid). The best eight out of 12 teams will compete for the title in the Spanish capital.

The only iconic thing about Perth is the statue of Bon Scott from AC/DC in the rather fun Fremantle, almost a half marathon away.

Sevens tournaments are therefore played to eliminate one third of the teams before the only tournament that will ultimately matter. And this in Madrid? MADRID? Really?

I really love Pedro Almodóvar's films. The celebrated actor Javier Bardem, who played in his High Heels and Live Flesh, was captain of Spain's under-20 rugby team in his day. He also wore a Springbok jersey at the World Cup final in 2007. He acknowledges it himself: “Doing well in rugby in Spain is like being Japan's best bullfighter."

It's ridiculous that Cape Town will henceforth be the only real rugby city on the entire Sevens calendar, but for now I predict ever-dwindling viewing figures for the faster version of the sport. If three-quarters of these tournaments attract more than half-full stadiums, I'll eat my oldest hat.

Olympic fool’s gold

I was terribly excited when sevens became an Olympic sport. This is its ticket to grow, I thought. 

But instead, it has officially shrunk. Fewer teams, fewer tournaments, less logical determination of champions.

The International Olympic Committee sells iron pyrites, fool's gold; nothing it touches has good karma in store.

With all the wisdom of hindsight, the Olympic status made the decline inevitable. First, people have always liked drinking beer at sevens tournaments, and if it wasn't a party they would probably never have been terribly interested.

Second, the presentation of women's tournaments at the same time meant there were even fewer matches to interest the average supporter in such a sober state.

Egg on The Egg’s face

Stephen Jones, rugby writer for the Sunday Times in London, was once known among his South African colleagues as The Egg because a former administrator thought he looked like he had been hatched from one.

Anyway, The Egg made a fool of himself the other day by accidentally producing a morose article on the London Sevens a whole week before kickoff.

His report was removed from the internet a while later – somewhere, a badly aimed finger had clearly pressed send instead of save and Stephen's dreams of a weekend off were thwarted.

The irony is that he predicted the whole spiritless affair more or less 100% correctly. Twickenham was empty and desolate. The tournament was boring. And henceforth, Britain, New Zealand and France will no longer even host sevens tournaments.

Pharmacy on wheels?

Jonas Vingegaard's Tour de France victory was virtually assured on Tuesday last week when he chalked up an outrageous time trial in the 16th stage. He was really on fire: 

So much so that after his comfortable seven-and-a-half-minute overall win over Slovenia's Tadej Pogačar, many asked the usual question about anyone who wins the Tour de France these days: was cheating involved?

The same questions were asked, but fewer of them, when Pogačar won his first Tour four years ago. It could have been because Pogačar is a friendly fellow and Vingegaard is a stony-faced Scandinavian.

It annoyed me when Pogačar was questioned at the time, but this time I was simply flabbergasted.

The days when the Tour de France was a pharmacy on wheels are long gone. Nowadays, riders are tested throughout the year, although that doesn't mean everything is fine.

The dominance of Team Sky, today's Ineos Grenadiers, in the Chris Froome days took on a completely different flavour when it came to light that in the off-season they regularly received injections of Kenacort, an asthma drug which was permitted at the time and provided users with a distinct advantage.

In a sport where asthma is a frequent byproduct, asthma medication is indispensable; in a profession where a man is almost never going to get the chance to play The Fiery Furnaces to his readers, such a chance should equally be seized:

The sports newspaper L'Équipe, which in its previous guise as L'Auto organised the first Tour in 1903, had a telling headline regarding Vingegaard's victory: “D'UNE AUTRE PLANÈTE" (from another planet). It had previously used the same headline about Armstrong:

Unfortunately, most critics are going to frown, although Vingegaard may well deserve better than complete scepticism, despite his surliness.  

Confessing to Oprah

Personally, I wish the Dane unqualified elation. Long ago, on the heavier bikes with fewer gears, these races were impossible to complete without boosters, but the modern generation of riders also enjoys numerous advantages that were unimaginable in the old days.

Unless the Jumbo Visma team are caught in a police raid or Vingegaard tearfully confesses to Oprah, at this point I'm pretty convinced he hasn't bent the rules.

I'm equally happy about the scepticism — if the questions aren't asked, the sport will never be able to live down its recent sordid past.

And speaking of Bon Scott, did someone say AC/DC? Always a good way to clear the airways on a Friday afternoon:

♦ VWB ♦

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