Cape Town - SA Rugby may need to revisit their ticket pricing policy and allocation of venues after hitting a record low at Kings Park on Saturday for stadium attendance at a home Rugby Championship fixture.
Only 26 836 people officially pitched up for the Springboks’ 2018 tournament opener against Argentina at the ageing Durban venue - which sports a capacity of close to double that (52 000), meaning some painful, unusually large gaps on the stands.
That was despite the generally promising start to Rassie Erasmus’s tenure as head coach this year, including the 2-1 June series triumph over England, and also the agreeably benign local weather - as predicted - for the Test against the Pumas (won 34-21, with a bonus point) after overnight rain.
Extremely challenging economic circumstances are likely to be touted as one reason for the glaringly sub-standard gate for an international, and probably not without validity.
But there were also some calls on social media in the aftermath for SA Rugby to rethink price structures by possibly offering bigger allocations of tickets at base-level prices, whenever the expectation is that a hosting stadium will fall well short of a sell-out.
Sadly the turnout fell in line with a broader trend of Durban, in recent years, struggling to muster the widespread public enthusiasm of old for sporting occasions featuring either the Springboks, Sharks in Super Rugby or the Proteas (at Kingsmead) in international cricket clashes.
Once the regular hosting venue for the Boxing Day Test match, Kingsmead has gradually been deprived of that tradition more recently - including in the coming summer when Cricket South Africa will experiment with inland SuperSport Park, Centurion, as host for the first Test against Pakistan from December26-30.
Saturday’s rugby Test figure narrowly beat - if that is the right word to use - two previous Rugby Championship matches, since its inception as a four-nation event in 2012, for record low gates.
Those were the 27 357 who saw the 2016 Test against same foes Argentina at Mbombela Stadium (although capacity in Nelspruit is a lesser 41 000, meaning a better atmosphere), and another bad Kings Park figure of 27 447 for the 2015 meeting.
In fairness to Durban, Argentina are traditionally the least appealing opponents from a South African attendance point of view in the Championship, a situation quite possibly not helped by the Pumas overwhelmingly being an extension nowadays of the Jaguares team active in Super Rugby only weeks beforehand.
There was, for example, an effectively capacity crowd at Kings Park (51 500) as recently as 2016, when the All Blacks were hosted there … and then in a match that was an extremely “dead rubber” affair as NZ had romped to the title already; they duly thrashed SA 57-15.
But Saturday’s major disappointment at the turnstiles could have the effect of persuading SA Rugby to start thinking more profoundly about not spreading their Tests around quite as liberally between centres in any international year.
For example, Newlands (though future Tests are expected to shift to Cape Town Stadium), the two big Gauteng centres of Johannesburg and Pretoria and now also an emerging force in Port Elizabeth (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium) seem to hold a better promise of decent or at least respectable crowds for any Bok games.
There is also, arguably, a case for beginning to contemplate more of a “national headquarters” scenario, a la Twickenham where England play almost all home internationals … or if not quite as radical an approach, adopting a fish-where-the-fish-are policy, possibly involving one city getting two Tests a year, at times.
The remaining home Championship Tests this year are at Port Elizabeth (v Australia, Sept 29) and Pretoria (v New Zealand, October 6).
Here are all Bok home gates for the Rugby Championship, stretching back to establishment in 2012:
2018 (so far)
SA v Argentina, Durban: 26 836
SA v Argentina, Port Elizabeth: 42 513
SA v Australia, Bloemfontein: 33 805
SA v New Zealand, Cape Town: 47 342
SA v Argentina, Mbombela: 27 357
SA v Australia, Pretoria: 47 500
SA v New Zealand, Durban: 51 500
2015 (reduced tournament)
SA v New Zealand, Johannesburg: 62 000 (Ellis Park)
SA v Argentina, Durban: 27 447
SA v Argentina, Pretoria: 30 453
SA v Australia, Cape Town: 44 955
SA v New Zealand, Johannesburg: 61 261 (Ellis Park)
SA v Argentina, Johannesburg: 52 867 (Ellis Park)
SA v Australia, Cape Town: 46 052
SA v New Zealand, Johannesburg: 60 634 (Ellis Park)
SA v Argentina, Cape Town: 38 843
SA v Australia, Pretoria: 44 463
SA v New Zealand, Johannesburg: 80 753 (FNB Stadium)
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