Saturday’s Currie Cup semifinal between Western Province and the Sharks at Newlands could be the last first-class rugby match at the grand old stadium.
At the business end of professional sport there is no time for sentiment, but there will be something profoundly sad if Saturday’s Currie Cup semifinal at Newlands is to be the last at South African rugby’s spiritual home.
Western Province will host the Sharks in front of empty stands because of a global pandemic. That’s a sentence you never thought you’d read 12 months ago.
Even if WP win, the outcome of the other semi between the Bulls and the Lions will have an impact on the venue for next week’s final. If the Bulls win it will be at Loftus Versfeld, regardless of whether WP advance. By the time WP and the Sharks meet the players will know if they’ll be running out onto the hallowed turf for the last time.
And even if the final is to be played at Newlands in eight days, it will again be under the shroud of Covid-19 protocols. There is something obscenely unfair about WP leaving their home in this way.
Newlands redevelopment uncertain
WP will move on to Cape Town Stadium in Green Point as part of an agreement with the city while Newlands will become office space and apartments.
Actually, it might not. The WP Rugby Football Union (WPRFU) has managed to fall out with the development company that rode in at the last minute when the union backed out of an agreed deal with Investec to redevelop Newlands.
Flyt Property Investments – which gave WPRFU a R112-million loan to service its debt, and signed a contract to redevelop Newlands with the union – declared a dispute in December. That situation arose when the WPRFU decided it wasn’t happy with the Flyt terms, months after it signed the contract and claimed to have done extensive due diligence.
Naturally the property developer has reserved its rights and terminated its contract with the WPRFU this month. It is now seeking damages believed to be worth close to R500-million. That figure will be made public when court papers are filed, which could be as soon as next week.
If that happens, unless the WPRFU has a rich benefactor in the wings, the entire future of the union is in jeopardy. Another consequence of this self-inflicted impasse between the WPRFU and Flyt is that Newlands could end up a derelict building like the old Boet Erasmus Stadium in Port Elizabeth. That would be an even more heartbreaking end to a rugby legacy that stretches back more than a century.
An elite roster of modern greats such as Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Schalk Burger, Bryan Habana, Jaque Fourie, Jean de Villiers and Bongi Mbonambi have donned the famous jersey and graced Newlands.
And over a century some of the biggest names in South African rugby, from Fairy Heatlie and Morné and Carel du Plessis to Danie Gerber, Errol Tobias and Tiaan Strauss, have called the ground home.
“We have spoken about it, that there have been so many players who have gone before here at Newlands. It means so much to so many people,” Kolisi said this week.
“We are the group who have been chosen to be playing and closing the chapter at Newlands. That’s a huge honour already for us. We have been speaking about it and will speak about it tomorrow as well. Whatever happens, we are going to be the team to play the last game at Newlands. We want to make sure we are remembered for something good come Saturday.”
Newlands hosted its first rugby match in 1890 when it was just a field, then in 1919 the first concrete stands were built. A rugby empire was also built on the site which, sadly, like the stadium itself, has fallen into disrepair in recent years.
Newlands is no longer a modern stadium and the cheaper option is for the team to move across town. Contrary to popular opinion stadium upkeep is an expensive business and becoming a tenant at a world-class facility such as Cape Town Stadium comes with far fewer hidden costs for the WPRFU.
Now it remains to be seen whether WP will move to Green Point as Currie Cup champions, and it starts with the Sharks tomorrow.
Currie Cup semifinals
After winning Super Rugby Unlocked the Bulls have stuttered slightly in the Currie Cup, but still head into the semis as favourites for the title.
Coach Jake White has blended a team of youth and experience and is desperate to create a winning culture before they move into European club competition in the Rainbow Cup in April.
One of the elder statesmen who has made his mark for the team is flyhalf Morné Steyn, who plays his 100th game for the Bulls this weekend. The points machine will have a huge role to play in what could be a tight encounter.
But White’s Bulls have been impressively expansive, demonstrating that the coach himself has changed his approach and grown since he guided the Boks to the 2007 World Cup title.
“Usually, I would have been branded as a conservative coach who just plays with our forwards, but I think I’ve learnt enough from coaching around the world that you can change things around,” White said on Thursday.
“I’m glad it can be seen that the Bulls are not just a one-dimensional team who only play with their forwards, and we’ll continue to play like that.
“But it is knockout rugby, and we have a guy like Morné Steyn, and this is almost like his arena. He’s been around for many years and can control a game and kick long penalties. My feeling is that we’ve got ourselves here doing the things we do well, so let’s keep doing that and back ourselves.
“There’s no point in going into our shell now; we’ve done all the hard yards and have the privilege of playing at home. We’ve shown we can beat all those teams, not once but twice. So there should be no reason not to feel confident that we can do it again if we stick to what we do well.”
The Lions are certainly the underdogs but have included experienced veterans such as tighthead Jannie du Plessis, lock Willem Alberts and flyhalf Elton Jantjies.
If the Lions pack can gain parity at least, Jantjies can bring gifted runners such as centre Wandisile Simelane and wing Courtnall Skosan into the game. The Lions will certainly not die wondering, and after running the Bulls close twice already in the past few months they have some confidence.
“You need to be brave in playoff games. You’ve got to be able and willing to give it a full crack,” Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen said this week. “Having a crack isn’t necessarily just throwing the ball around; having a crack is to see if we can dictate the tempo of the game a little bit.
“To see if we can get forward dominance and how can we exert that dominance if they put us under pressure on defence, and it is about how we can transition that to maybe a superior kicking game.
“Having a crack is being able to apply pressure in different ways. We really had a good review after our previous game against the Bulls and we’re excited to see how we do this weekend.”
The subplots to this one are numerous and not only because it might be a Newlands swansong.
On Friday, Roc Nation, the global management company that was part of the MVM Consortium which wanted to buy a controlling stake in WP Rugby but eventually concluded a deal with the Sharks, announced it had done a separate deal with the Sharks.
Roc Nation will use its considerable influence as a global marketer of musicians and sports stars to position the Sharks as a leading global rugby brand.
WP and Springbok captain Siya Kolisi is Roc Nation’s leading South African client, so the timing of its announcement, cynics might conclude, was timed to inflict maximum destabilisation on WP. Kolisi is unlikely to remain a WP player with Roc Nation’s massive interest in the Sharks now.
Those distractions aside, there has been little to choose between the two sides this season, but WP go into the match without the World Cup-winning prop Steven Kitshoff.
The ginger front rower is in isolation following Covid-19 exposure. He has been superb throughout the campaign, both in set pieces and in the tight loose. His presence will be missed.
Sharks flyhalf Curwin Bosch has also been the form pivot in the competition and if he can receive quality service from his pack – and it’s a big ‘if’ because the Sharks tight five haven’t been consistent – he could shape the game.
“We have had success at Newlands before in big games, though, so we’re looking forward to that,” Sharks coach Sean Everitt said. “What Province have done is complement the strength of their pack with a good kicking game. They’re not taking any chances in their own half, and are kicking the ball long, but that does give us opportunities from a counter-attack point of view.
“Everyone talks about the scrumming and power tight five, but there are a lot of other elements of the game that you have to get right to get points on the scoreboard. So, we’re looking at opportunities, and if we don’t play accurately in terms of receiving the kick we could be in a spot of bother, but we’ve prepared for that.” DM