To be at Newlands last week among the crowd that made up a full house for the Stormers against the Bulls was to observe much of what is both good and bad about South African rugby. When the Stormers are playing well Newlands is too small, but tradition and vested interests dictate that there will be no imminent move to the vacant and well-appointed Green Point Stadium.
Newlands is no stranger to acts of random violence, both on and off the field, exacerbated in the latter case by cramped conditions. Yet some 40 000 people, perhaps a quarter of whom were supporting the Bulls, behaved themselves in impressive fashion on Saturday night. This despite the fact that the 7pm kick-off had allowed large volumes of alcohol to be consumed before the game.
The question to be asked is how many of those supporters felt they got their money’s worth. There is a tangible benefit to being part of a large sporting crowd, one that cannot be accessed by watching the contest on television. The ebb and flow of the game becomes an integral part of the collective: the oohs and ahs, cheers and boos, standing up in moments of high excitement and the banter with neighbours during the many lulls.
The panacea to all ills is that the home team should win, sending the bulk of the crowd home happy. Unquestionably, the Stormers fans went home happy on Saturday, especially because the narrow win came at the expense of their traditional rivals.
And yet there was a hollow feeling transmitted, one that suggested there should have been a little more on offer from the game.
In the harsh light of Sunday morning the enduring tale of the contest was one of imperfect scrummaging. Bulls loosehead Dean Greyling was singled out by referee Jaco Peyper as the villain of the piece. Greyling’s inability to come to terms with the Stormers tighthead, Frans Malherbe, presented a succession of penalties, all of which were punished by flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis.
Astonishingly, Greyling’s performance did not stop national coach Heyneke Meyer from selecting him in the first Springbok training camp of the season, which will be held in Johannesburg next week.
The home supporters, desperate for some of the running rugby that Newlands has long been famed for, were thus forced into a very limited template. The one memorable moment of the match was Francois Hougaard’s break that created a long-range try for Bjorn Basson shortly after half-time. Significantly, the cheers that greeted it were not restricted to Bulls supporters, thus revealing the central dichotomy of the game: winning is fine, but most of the paying public want something more.
The limited ambition of the Stormers meant that the outmuscled Bulls were still in the contest until the final play of the game. Had Handré Pollard received a better pass, his attempted drop goal would not have been charged down by Duane Vermeulen. In that eventuality, the crowd would have headed for the exits in far less placatory mood.
It is a lesson that the Cape side has to absorb quickly if they are to be more than a paper tiger at the playoffs. The inability to translate forward power into try-scoring opportunities will be their downfall against the best sides New Zealand has to offer.
The opportunity exists to expand expectations. Four more home games in front of similarly passionate crowds give the team a chance to build significant momentum. What needs to be evinced is a clearer vision; a realisation that wins need to be far more clear-cut than Saturday’s example. The talent is there, but at the moment the belief is missing.
It is a different story at the Lions, where a bunch of utilitarian players has been empowered to throw caution to the wind. It’s easy to say that their contest with the Cheetahs, fast and open as it was, did not have the conference-topping restrictions so clearly evident at Newlands. It would be equally easy to claim that Johan Ackermann’s men have used up a whole season of good luck in winning a string of games by narrow margins.
At Loftus on Saturday we will find out a little more about how momentum can affect fortune, be it good or bad. The Bulls need to win their last game before going on tour. It is highly improbable that they will win more than two games overseas, so losing to the Stormers makes this week’s clash something of a last-chance saloon.
The Bulls need to fix their scrum, which will entail more than simply dropping Greyling. The Lions’ scrum is not as formidable as the Stormers, but their forwards are arguably more destructive in the loose exchanges. Front-foot ball for a superbly balanced back row led by Warren Whiteley will surely scupper the chances of a home win.
The secret ingredient should be the crowd. When the Bulls are playing well the opposition drowns in a sea of blue. If the people of Pretoria truly believe their team can win, they will show up in the kind of numbers that can tip the balance to the Bulls. If not, the Lions will prevail.