Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – It
is, I’ll grant you and the bean-counters, more than a little deceptive to hark
back too far on the rugby landscape for purposes of comparison.
years ago, Super Rugby was still light years off the radar, and Test
opportunities for the Springboks sporadic at best, as apartheid held its cynical
Cup really was “king” to many South African rugby fans – or at least those who
didn’t deliberately shun the white-dominated establishment fold at the time.
first, really meaningful own appreciation of the passion that fuelled the
unrivalled “north versus south” derby between Western Province and the Blue
Bulls (Northern Transvaal then) was anxiously queuing for tickets for the 1979
final at Newlands.
Aged 15, and
conveniently resident very nearby, I insisted to my parents that I was willing
to stand from midnight in a quest to ensure tickets when the modest, dimly-lit
little porthole in the Grand Stand – no online booking, no ticketing agencies
involved then - opened for sales around 07:00 or so.
It seemed a
shrewd plan … only by the time I got to the ground with formidable hours to
kill, the queue was already snaking up perilously close to Newlands station.
I did my time in the early-spring chill, and probably by around 09:00 reached
the point where I was able to complete the task of snaring those treasured paper
“passports” to the ground for the showpiece - albeit with perilously few left by
then, and our allocated vantage point on the Railway Stand annoyingly deep in
the in-goal area.
It was the
famous final near the twilight of WP captain Morne du Plessis’s career, where
the teams shared the spoils 15-15 and the Bok legend, desperate to sample
clinching the Currie Cup outright after the Bulls had already won it a greedy
six prior times in the 1970s, compared the split experience to “kissing your
flowing-haired Naas Botha, golden boy of Pretoria, had banged over the late,
Capetonian heart-breaking levelling dropped goal in hallmark, cool-headed
1980s, the roles in terms of dominance would strikingly reverse, with the
post-Morne WP side of the Jan Pickard presidency tenure bagging the Currie Cup
an unprecedented five times in a row between 1982 and 1986.
But the specific
rivalry remained as intense as ever, the two provinces meeting in as many as
six of the finals in that decade.
In the years
since democracy, of course, other South African teams have had their stints of
bossing the domestic (or slightly more widespread, as Super Rugby eventually
arrived in ever-varying forms) bragging rights, like the Sharks/Natal and
have also won the Super Rugby crown three times (2007, 2009, 2010), and the
Stormers been quite smartly-dressed “bridesmaids” in many senses on a few
occasions … albeit bridesmaids nevertheless.
though, there is still a certain, special allure and cultural “edge” to WP/Stormers
versus Bulls, even if it is fading slightly from a once-lofty heyday.
that occasion – it must have been very early 2000s – when even a pre-season
friendly between the two at a sun-scorched Newlands remarkably attracted more
than 35,000 people, stimulated by the nominal entry fee? (If memory serves
correctly, a flat R10.)
Or how about
the closing Super 14 round-robin encounter of 2010, when the Bulls, already assured
of a home semi-final, unapologetically fielded a B-team … yet a virtually
capacity crowd still turned out in the shadow of Table Mountain to see the
Stormers clinch their own home semi with a 38-10 triumph?
much more general, widespread demise of South African rugby both economically –
including mass player defections to Europe -- and in terms of the national
team’s pretty glaring struggles of late has inevitably impacted the intensity
of the rivalry.
From time to
time, though, Stormers v Bulls (or the other way around, at Loftus) still
commands unexpected pulling power.
Might we be gratifyingly
reminded of that on Saturday?
It would be
timely tonic if so, given further, relatively bleak evidence from
flimsily-occupied stands this season that SA derbies, broadly, may not be quite
the hallowed thing the administrators once led us to believe they were.
rounds of them in Super Rugby - given the much-debated, ongoing conference
system – and more to come when a now-diluted Currie Cup kicks in soon
afterwards, is the former golden goose gradually being flogged to death?
be very limited excuses for yet another sub-standard gate for a South African
derby, if that’s what happens this weekend.
are scrapping with near desperation for passages to the knockout phase, plus we
are fast approaching Springbok squad selection for Rassie Erasmus’s maiden
exposure as head coach – making this a trial to a compelling degree, in several
weather in traditionally sports-mad Cape Town is set wonderfully fair for
Saturday, and just another favourable factor is the (now reasonably rare) 15:05
scheduling - as if a throwback to the days when big Currie Cup clashes kicked
off at 15:30, still widely considered optimal time from a public convenience
and popularity point of view.
understanding is that an attendance around the 30,000-mark is anticipated.
that should be little more than “par”, by my book, if Super Rugby wishes to
demonstrate that it remains a stable and appealing enough product.
Ah yes, and
let’s not overlook that crisis-torn WP Rugby needs every damned penny it can
This game a
barometer of Super Rugby’s lustre, or otherwise, in 2018?
Oh, you bet.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: