Cape Town – To describe it as going “downmarket” would be a slightly overstated and disrespectful way to brand the fast switch in the HSBC Sevens World Series travelling circus from the opulence, brash modernity and multiculturalism of Dubai to the notably smaller terrain of Port Elizabeth this weekend.
But the change is pretty acute, nevertheless. It’s just a bit like resurrecting that old bumper sticker joke: “Paris, New York, Tokyo ... Pofadder.”
Enjoy the place though I fairly frequently do, there is simply no way that the Eastern Cape metropolis can be mentioned in the same breath as such expatriate-laden hotspots as Dubai, Hong Kong or London, all of which are particular money-spinners of the annual Sevens circuit.
Visiting the emirate for the first time a few days ago, including spending some time at the Dubai Sevens itself, I was reminded of just how the very “international” flavour – both in multitude of teams from around the planet and vital, cosmopolitan crowd component – is a key element of Sevens World Series’ success and continued growth.
Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, of course, will host all of the staple senior Sevens teams that Dubai did ... but it won’t be able to hold a candle to the prior leg for the swollen number of different nationalities (both big contingents and more modest) in the stands.
Of course the competition itself is important, but perhaps not even as much as the weekend is so often an irresistible opportunity for expats, possibly homesick at times, to get into party spirit both with compatriots but also similarly migrant folk from other nations in a professional hotspot like Dubai.
That venue continues to lure total attendance at the tournament of around 100,000, and the associated corporate entertainment and brand visibility is an enormous feature: just from a South African perspective, the Amarula lapa and Nederburg tent at the Dubai Sevens appeared to be doing a roaring trade in visitors (and not just “Saffers”, either!) to their mini-premises.
Apart from being held at a generally idyllic time of year weather-wise – warm sunshine and temperatures of around 27 deg C rather than the murderous 45-48 of their mid-summer – Dubai has the advantage over most other Sevens host cities of its broad “rugby village” feel, as several pitches surround the main stadium for handy use in parallel women’s, youth and veterans tournaments.
Even the legendary Hong Kong Sevens suffers through availability of just one playing arena, with the alternative competitions having to be staged a few kilometres away.
If visiting Dubai with the Sevens a pleasant focal point, guests benefit from its vast, smooth airline and airport links plus selection from some 625 hotels of varied price range and 85,000 rooms. Over 11 million tourists sampled the city last year.
Ouch, put those sorts of stats in your pipe and try to smoke it, PE!
It is against this backdrop – and even while acknowledging that the city has some smart rugby administrators and necessary marketing enthusiasm – that it is a little surprising that after a four-year tenure (including the latest one) it appears Port Elizabeth may be SARU’s front-runner for a further hosting period and Cape Town be elbowed out as a rival tendering factor again.
I was led to believe last year, and it seemed to make such multi-pronged sense, that the Mother City, which unfathomably has still not tasted the event since the inception of a regular South African leg in 1999 (it’s been Stellenbosch for just one year, then varying stints for Durban, George and PE in that order) was finally, irresistibly in the running to stage the booming event from next year onward.
The impatient lobby was being led by influential figures in the International Rugby Board, but also such juggernaut, longtime Sevens-associated commercial figures as Emirates airline (interestingly now on board with the Golden Lions) which has long been irked by the SA Sevens going to places it does not fly into.
It boasts a twice-a-day service, by stark contrast, between Dubai and Cape Town, and there are many other reasons why the Mother City just seems the most glaringly obvious fit for the Sevens.
For one thing, Cape Town Stadium, the favoured venue if the event does eventually land in the city, is beautifully located near big tourism features like the Waterfront, Sea Point seafront, parks and plentiful boulevards laden with restaurants and watering holes – it is also right next to such facilities as Hamilton RFC, the country’s oldest rugby club, where additional games and entertainment can be laid on.
The SA leg also happens to be at a time of year when not only does Cape Town offer customarily the most reliable weather of any possible Sevens host city countrywide – important, as Sevens is earmarked ideally as something oozing a “sunshine vibe” – but it is also crawling with holidaying visitors from both abroad and other domestic locations.
While matching the expat-attendance levels of such Sevens host venues as Dubai and Hong Kong is obviously never going to happen in South Africa, a Capetonian Sevens leg would pull in no shortage of, for instance, English and French rugby lovers, increasing numbers of them based these days in the Mother City anyway.
You have to imagine that at least some political pressure is at play (Cape Town being under Democratic Alliance control hardly does it any favours?) in any quest to secure an onward Sevens deal for Port Elizabeth from 2015.
Apparently the EP Kings and Nelson Mandela Bay Metro will trumpet an economic benefit to the region of more than R200-million from the Sevens as part of the retention drive. An alternative view might be: wouldn’t the Western Cape, hardly without its poverty issues either, lure even more much-needed cash into the societal kitty from Sevens?
You can hardly blame PE for determinedly wishing to retain their hold on the Sevens, despite the gaps sometimes all too evident on the stands every year.
After all, how long is an acceptable time for an annual event to become properly embedded on the minds of the local populace? Is four years enough? Or should it be six? Eight?
But eventually, to borrow a much-favoured saying from an old boss of mine, the time must arrive for the SA Sevens leg to fish where the fish are.
Until then, even if the PE event punches defiantly above its weight, the Sevens extravaganza’s fullest potential in this country just will not be met.
*Rob Houwing recently visited Dubai as a guest of Dubai Tourism