'Super Sunday': Another nail in Newlands' coffin

    2019-02-04 06:45
    Stormers captain Chris van Zyl celebrates scoring
    Stormers captain Chris van Zyl celebrates scoring against the Bulls (Gallo Images)

    Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - They say the “stadium experience” is what really counts nowadays for increasingly discerning, demanding and often more selective attenders of significant sporting occasions.

    If that is applicable in the Western Cape, as much as anywhere else, then ageing, so noticeably decaying Newlands rugby ground, for all the richness of its history, really is doomed to extinction.

    The pre-season “Super Hero Sunday” double-header, featuring all four South African franchises in Super Rugby, was a massive success in all respects at altogether more spacious and modern Cape Town Stadium at the weekend … and that despite the already-known fact that most of the quartet were going to keep the very cream of their personnel (or read, frontline Springboks) cocooned for the start of the competition-proper in just under a fortnight.

    A full house of well over 50 000 - a figure you so seldom see at the country’s major venues in the SANZAAR tournament these days - revelled in the novel, Marvel-character themed event, which saw the hometown Stormers pip the Bulls 33-28 in the main fixture and the Lions similarly edge out the Sharks 19-14.

    Helped by the greater sense of pitch-side spaciousness as well, several peripheral activities - including a celebrity and media-infused Cycle-a-thon in aid of the Childhood Cancer Foundation (CHOC) - went down a treat.

    The stadium built just ahead of the 2010 football World Cup also has appreciably better acoustics than Newlands, which meant that mid-game musical interventions ensured a pulsating atmosphere in the stands, while there is also easier access to food and beverage due to the less claustrophobic exit points and broader walkways behind the stands.

    Although Newlands has its own well-rooted lobby of devotees and sentimentalists, and generates a thunderous atmosphere of its own when full (primarily because the vintage design means spectators are largely close to the action and jam-packed together), Sunday was effectively another bullet to the head of the southern suburbs ground.

    “Here everybody appears to have a decent view of the game,” a popular Bok of the much earlier 2000s remarked to me during the Stormers-Bulls showpiece at the more oval-shaped, up-to-the-minute facility, while wary not to downplay his affection for Newlands.

    As it is, it is widely believed that Newlands staged its final Test when the Boks hosted England in the dead-rubber third encounter last year; national umbrella body SA Rugby have long been partial to Cape Town Stadium for events under its jurisdiction, including even relatively minor occasions like press conferences, Bok practice sessions and the like.

    The city has no Test at all during 2019, when the Springboks play a leaner programme of matches due to the World Cup in Japan nearer the end of the year, but there has been widespread speculation that when it almost certainly returns to favour in 2020, any international then will be hosted at the Green Point-based bowl.

    Sunday’s clearly lucrative pre-season festival, quite likely to earn a repeat nod next year, was also simply a further case of seaside Cape Town Stadium producing the goods as a crowd-puller - from relatively skimpy opportunities thus far -- for the odd-shaped ball-game.

    It has staged four South African legs of the World Sevens Series in a row since 2015/16, with “sold out” status a common phenomenon and widespread acceptance that it has become one of the most appealing in public enjoyment terms on the global circuit.

    As far the likely (many prefer to employ the word “inevitable”) switch of Stormers/WP rugby to Cape Town Stadium is concerned, the process has been painstaking and marked by a general impasse for years between WP Rugby - who wholly own their existing headquarters on the other side of the mountain -- and the City of Cape Town.

    In the meantime Newlands, on its challengingly tight plot of land, slips further into a situation where no visible signs of desperately-needed modernisation take place, hardly helped by the parlous financial and “political” state of WP Rugby which only aggravates the lack of willingness to spend meaningful money on a spruce-up.

    A few months before he stepped down from office recently, then-WPRFU president Thelo Wakefield was quoted as saying in late September: “It is a fact that we will move across to Cape Town Stadium ... it is world-class, a very modern stadium, and modern professional rugby players demand that.

    “We will develop Newlands (instead) into a business entity ... Stormers and Currie Cup (Western Province) will play at Cape Town Stadium.”

    Wakefield had indicated then that it would not be this year, but “it could be the year after that (2020)”.

    Subsequently, former vice- and deputy-president Zelt Marais swept into the supremo’s role late last year, but he has almost immediately been distracted by a potentially crippling feud at Newlands over the status of Stormers coaching staff member Paul Treu.

    Treu accused others on the panel of “discrimination” against him last season, although an independent probe found no wrongdoing and it has been reported that the overwhelming majority of the professional playing staff want him removed.

    Marais, however, is thought to be part of a violently conflicting quest to instead have him replace Gert Smal as director of rugby, which has the potential for severe disharmony on the very eve of Super Rugby 2019.

    But he was in attendance at buzzing Super Hero Day across town on Sunday, and may well realise that speedier resolution of the venue-shift issue is another matter to bring considerably nearer the top of his formidable “to do” pile.

    Cape Town Stadium as the primary home of rugby in the city just seems so much closer to logical, indisputable ...

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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