Club rugby shows pros how it’s done

Saturday was a big rugby day down in the Boland. Worcester Villagers — famous for their growly motto of “Villa of niks (Villa or nothing)” — were due to host Welkom Rovers in the first round of fixtures for this year’s Gold Cup, a pan-African tournament featuring mainly club teams from across South Africa, but now expanded to incorporate a team each from Zimbabwe and Namibia with an eye on future continental growth.

The match was televised on SuperSport 1 after the Springboks’ game in Brisbane with Afrikaans commentary by Toks van der Linde, who posed for many a cellphone photo with a gaggle of exceptionally thrilled aunties after the match. There were possibly 6 000 people squashed into the small stadium for the fixture, and local hero Cornal Hendricks led the teams out of the tunnel.

A school band, with drums, cymbals and a mandatory badly dented trumpet or two, struck up just before kick-off. Flags were waved and team songs and anthems sung; opinions and criticism were freely shared. Seldom in the history of Worcester’s rugby-mad community had a fixture been so eagerly awaited.

The brainchild of South African Rugby’s Duane Heath, the Gold Cup is last year’s Community Cup in a new incarnation.

Eighteen club teams from around South Africa — including Sishen, Pacaltsdorp outside Mossel Bay and White River — along with the two neighbouring country teams have been divided into four groups of five for the competition.

Guaranteed four matches — two at home, two away — the top two teams from each of the four groups qualify for the quarterfinals, whereupon the competition segues into a knockout format. The final will be played, and televised, in late October.

“Club rugby players are people who elevate themselves for an afternoon into something else,” says Heath. “They work alongside you all week and then, like Superman, they become something special for an instant.”

Heath played club rugby in Sweden for two years and has never forgotten the camaraderie and the joy it gave him. He is an evangelist for the club game, finding in it the values — comradeship, dedication without recognition, selfless courage — that he believes professional rugby, with its bloated rosters and self-interested presidents, sometimes lacks.

He loves the idea that Villagers, who have been going for 133 years and are the oldest team in this year’s competition, can be drawn against a side like Rovers, who will play only a maximum of eight league games in a season.

Two teams in the Northern Free State league in which they play imploded a few months ago and Welkom have been forced to scratch out friendlies against Vaal Reefs and Bloemfontein Police. Made up of boilermakers, fitters, turners, car traders and farmers, they even have an undertaker in their midst.

Says lock Donavan Nieuwenhuyzen: “Hennenman and Kroonstad [teams] fell away, so there was a month this season when we played no rugby because we also couldn’t arrange friendlies.”

Heath says he could have regionalised the tournament, but resisted the temptation to do so. About 80% of his R8.5-million budget goes to travel and accommodation and there will be 26 flights in the tournament’s round-robin phase of 40 matches.

This means, for example, that last Saturday’s first round saw Durban Collegians flying to Cape Town to be beaten by early tournament favourites False Bay, and also saw Windhoek’s Wanderers flying to Johannesburg for a tussle with Pirates, which they achingly lost by two points.

There is a human scale in club rugby, believes Heath, something that professional rugby cannot match. Boland Park Stadium, where Villagers play, is just off the town’s high street. Their players, with nicknames like “Bossie”, “Kreef”, “Gaffie” and “the Beast”, come from all over the Boland but no one arrives from further afield than Vredenuerg, Bredasdorp or Grabouw.

In a sense, the high-speed train of professional rugby has long since passed them by and they have been left standing, perplexed, on the station platform, their kitbags in their hands.

Despite Saturday’s fanfare, most fixtures (with the possible exception of their derby match against Perseverance, or “Persies” as they are called in the Boland) take place with little but home-town interest. It is a lonely world, and one that is only occasionally enlivened by the presence of Van der Linde, Hendricks and the television cameras.

Heath thinks this might be changing. He says that some of Boland’s home Currie Cup fixtures this season have drawn crowds of barely 200, and intimates what we all already know — that Super Rugby, with its obtuse structure and penchant for games of little significance, is struggling to capture the public imagination.

Contrast this with the Gold Cup — and the Villagers versus Rovers fixture — which invariably has a large local following, a vibrant life on social media and talks to something within the rugby fan that appreciates a sense of community and pride with which they can identify. Such a local flavour makes it far more like the English football, say, of 25 years ago, before the rise of season tickets and all-seater stadiums, where clubs represented towns and there was an organic link between players and followers.

The physical Gold Cup itself is part of the tournament’s mystique and Heath is often seen bringing it to matches. “We don’t know where the cup comes from,” he says. “It’s an utter mystery. This is possibly an urban legend but we’ve heard it might have been the trophy for an intercontinental air race in the Thirties, when that kind of thing was all the rage. Between 1929 and 1959 it went missing and then it was found and used by the old South African Rugby Football Federation. It went missing again between 2003 and 2009. When they were doing renovations at the Free State stadium for the 2010 World Cup, it was found inside a dusty cardboard box.”

This year’s tournament has no sponsor. SA Rugby are in negotiations with several interested sponsors, who in all likelihood will come on board not as naming sponsors and rights holders but in a smaller, less financially onerous capacity.

After that, it’s anyone’s guess but Heath is hoping for more of the nine-try fare that on Saturday saw Rovers hold doggedly on to a 26-3 half-time lead to run out 39-29 winners. Villagers rallied in the second half, scoring four well-deserved tries, but despite the pandemonium on the stands they could not quite land the killer punch.

This weekend they travel to Durban to play College Rovers, and Welkom Rovers entertain Durbanville-Belville, last season’s champions. Let’s hope there’s no need for the undertaker in their midst.

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