In a social media age in which fantasy leagues are all the rage, sports fans have always yearned for something like yesterday’s inaugural Carling Champion Team match.
It’s all good and well to play virtual coach from the couch, but the obvious fact that your team doesn’t exactly play on Saturdays is a little limiting to even those supporters deluded enough to think a Rassie Erasmus lurks from behind their laptops.
Yesterday’s Carling Champion Team rugby game, between the aforementioned Champion Team and the Kenyan national side at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, goes a long way towards answering the question of whether they would be better selectors than the guys who do it on a weekly basis.
Borrowed from the Soweto Derby’s popular – and lucrative – pre-season Carling Black Label Cup soccer game, where the opposing teams are selected on the basis of who gets the most supporters’ votes, the concept made its rugby debut at Loftus Versfeld.
Incidentally, the stadium was also the first rugby venue to accept fans since the national lockdown last year.
The timing of the game, however, could not have been more rotten. The fixture came on the same day the Springboks were playing their first game of their end-of-year European swing and the United Rugby Championship teams having just returned to training from their break following the away leg of the competition.
With the original idea of the fixture based on an All Stars concept, getting the country’s leading internationals and franchise players was understandably difficult.
This may go some way towards explaining how Bulls hooker Schalk Erasmus who, no disrespect intended, can’t be terribly famous outside Loftus, was the player with the most votes when they were tallied.
The result was a team which looked a little at home, what with 11 of the players in the match day 23 coming from the Bulls squad and being coached by the venue’s resident director of rugby, Jake White.
As far as one is aware, the visiting Kenyan side was not picked by South Africans, although their heavy 85-17 defeat suggested that may well have been the case.
In all fairness to the visitors, whose thing is more the sparsely populated spaces of a sevens match than the prang-a-minute confines of the 15-man game, the invitational side was surprisingly slick to begin with.
With the Bulls’ Keagan Johannes and the Cheetahs’ Brandon Thomson running things from scrum half and fly half, respectively, and the silky smooth Howard Mnisi at inside centre, the ball saw an awful lot of air – be it from passing or offloading – with even the forwards getting in on the act.
And after an opening 20 minutes in which it was raining local tries thanks to a combination of the kind of heat which should have rendered the water breaks during the 20th and 60th minutes Black Label breaks, and an intensity the Kenyans won’t have been exposed to before, the visitors did get a foothold in the match.
Led by a fly half with that Kenyan of Kenyan names (because he isn’t, he’s of Fijian extraction) – Jone Kubu Tavaga – the plucky but outgunned Simbas got something approaching their own back by scoring 17 points in the match.
Their import got 12 of those from a penalty, a try and two conversion. Having made its debut, the big question about the Champion Team match is when it might make an appearance again – preferably with all the top players available – in local rugby’s ever-crowded fixture list.
Given that new Currie Cup sponsors Carling Black Label have just seen their competition relegated to the status of the SuperSport Rugby Challenge and the Vodacom Cup, rugby’s bosses almost owe their backers one.