Cape Town – Has ever a solitary leg of the World Rugby Sevens Series commanded so much rah-rah in the specific host city, and to some extent relevant country as a whole?
Just asking …
The Blitzboks, for their recent, success-laden “sins”, strode into Cape Town several days ago to be met by a near-ceaseless – at least until their not-in-the-script Cup semi-final exit -- wave of wonderment and adulation.
Call it the “perfect storm”, I guess: the natural public enthusiasm over their status as defending champions of the annual circuit plus sparkling start to the 2017/18 long haul in Dubai … and the sheer hunger for a successful national rugby product of some sort (any sort!) in the wake of another doldrums-afflicted year for the Springboks in the XVs arena.
The two-day event has been an enormous success since its logical, overdue transfer three years ago to traditionally sports-crazy Cape Town from the more backwater posts of Port Elizabeth and -- even more ill-advisedly, the deeper you think about it -- an absurdly generous nine-year grounding in George that stunted both its economic and PR potential.
The Sevens comes at a time of year when Capetonians are basking in some of the most reliable, sun-soaked (if a little “breezy” too, to put it politely) weather countrywide, firmly in school holiday mode and the city increasingly teeming with cosmopolitan tourists from far and wide.
So with Neil Powell’s charges already in fine fettle from their desert success, the third annual Cape Town Sevens was even more of a marketer’s dream than usual.
Their build-up visibility as personalities, I surmised, more than matched that you’d expect of the Springboks if they, for example, were about to tackle a major rival in a Newlands Test.
Seabelo Senatla and company were paraded at the obligatory, teeming Waterfront, undertook signing sessions, fronted copious media appointments, almost had their every stride scrutinised as if Ronaldo or Messi were in town (maybe with WAGS).
That’s not a criticism: why wouldn’t SA Rugby and others wish to maximise the feel-good factor around the Sevens squad, especially as it is so agreeably, harmoniously representative of all sectors of our often fractious and complex community?
Somehow, though, it all just seemed a bit much.
Little could have been more over the top, for example, than when one long-established local broadsheet newspaper had the Blitzboks as their expansive Friday front-page lead, the subject of that often sombre, serious space known as the “editorial” and the topic of an op-ed slot (another space generally preserved for highbrow political analysis) as well.
I don’t know about you, but I had to keep pinching myself: we are talking a single-leg Sevens jamboree, for goodness’ sake!
Nor is it as though South Africa is exactly shy of burning, bigger-picture societal issues for sharp media focus right now.
Without wishing to sound like some sort of humourless killjoy, whenever the Sevens is held in some of the countries boasting long-established major fifteens Test sides, it is seldom given much more than inside-page type of status in the pecking order of sporting priority.
And truth be told, that is roughly its place; a fun-filled, beery spectacle -- with at least some elements of lotto-like luck a la Twenty20 cricket -- that zooms into town and quickly back out again.
As with T20, build-up preview/prediction doesn’t have quite the levels of science associated with more traditional, extended forms of the sport in question.
Monitoring the press activity in the lead-up to the Cape Town Sevens, it seemed to me that the gist of the advice to the Blitzboks, albeit in a helluva lot more words at times, was roughly this: “just keep playing as you are”.
And then -- horror of horrors, sacrilege, billions of blistering blue barnacles (with apologies to Captain Haddock) – SA’s pride and joy came up a wee bit short on an unusually nervy, cohesion-lacking Sunday.
Let me make this clear: I don’t believe that the Blitzboks were guilty of any special swollen-head syndrome over the weekend; they seem a down-to-earth, appealingly egos-in-check bunch.
I also still believe with some conviction that they will brush aside their home-stage hiccup (as they did last year) to go on to win the 2017/18 tournament, thus retaining their crown.
But it just appeared, on the pivotal final day, as if the fevered hometown expectation that they would pitch up and walk on water -- try it, it doesn’t always work – became the popped screw that fouled their machine.
After a pretty routine day one, they had to dig deep (from 5-21) down, to subdue Fiji in the quarter-final, then lost to New Zealand in the semi, and they certainly didn’t produce more customary standards of polish, either, in narrowly repelling Canada in the bronze playoff … when we might have expected a more furious “atonement” drive, yes?
These guys have shown that they have the mettle to prevail in destinations not exactly heaving with green and gold jerseys and rainbow-nation flags -- in a strange way, a return to that less-pressured environment ought to help bring out their best qualities anew.
For the last few days, the Blitzboks were Cape Town’s crush, and of course there are no rules against that.
But subconsciously, perhaps, they became a crutch to grab for, too, in the desperate desire to make South African rugby as a collective somehow seem more dandy than it really is …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing