Super Rugby

Stormers v Bulls: Do derbies still cut it?

Robbie Fleck (Gallo Images)
Robbie Fleck (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – It is, I’ll grant you and the bean-counters, more than a little deceptive to hark back too far on the rugby landscape for purposes of comparison.

Almost 40 years ago, Super Rugby was still light years off the radar, and Test opportunities for the Springboks sporadic at best, as apartheid held its cynical grip.

So Currie Cup really was “king” to many South African rugby fans – or at least those who didn’t deliberately shun the white-dominated establishment fold at the time.

But my first, really meaningful own appreciation of the passion that fuelled the unrivalled “north versus south” derby between Western Province and the Blue Bulls (Northern Transvaal then) was anxiously queuing for tickets for the 1979 final at Newlands.

Aged 15, and conveniently resident very nearby, I insisted to my parents that I was willing to stand from midnight in a quest to ensure tickets when the modest, dimly-lit little porthole in the Grand Stand – no online booking, no ticketing agencies involved then - opened for sales around 07:00 or so.

It seemed a shrewd plan … only by the time I got to the ground with formidable hours to kill, the queue was already snaking up perilously close to Newlands station.

Undeterred, I did my time in the early-spring chill, and probably by around 09:00 reached the point where I was able to complete the task of snaring those treasured paper “passports” to the ground for the showpiece - albeit with perilously few left by then, and our allocated vantage point on the Railway Stand annoyingly deep in the in-goal area.

It was the famous final near the twilight of WP captain Morne du Plessis’s career, where the teams shared the spoils 15-15 and the Bok legend, desperate to sample clinching the Currie Cup outright after the Bulls had already won it a greedy six prior times in the 1970s, compared the split experience to “kissing your sister”.

A young, flowing-haired Naas Botha, golden boy of Pretoria, had banged over the late, Capetonian heart-breaking levelling dropped goal in hallmark, cool-headed fashion.

In the 1980s, the roles in terms of dominance would strikingly reverse, with the post-Morne WP side of the Jan Pickard presidency tenure bagging the Currie Cup an unprecedented five times in a row between 1982 and 1986.

But the specific rivalry remained as intense as ever, the two provinces meeting in as many as six of the finals in that decade.

In the years since democracy, of course, other South African teams have had their stints of bossing the domestic (or slightly more widespread, as Super Rugby eventually arrived in ever-varying forms) bragging rights, like the Sharks/Natal and Lions/Transvaal.

The Bulls have also won the Super Rugby crown three times (2007, 2009, 2010), and the Stormers been quite smartly-dressed “bridesmaids” in many senses on a few occasions … albeit bridesmaids nevertheless.

Happily, though, there is still a certain, special allure and cultural “edge” to WP/Stormers versus Bulls, even if it is fading slightly from a once-lofty heyday.

Remember that occasion – it must have been very early 2000s – when even a pre-season friendly between the two at a sun-scorched Newlands remarkably attracted more than 35,000 people, stimulated by the nominal entry fee? (If memory serves correctly, a flat R10.)

Or how about the closing Super 14 round-robin encounter of 2010, when the Bulls, already assured of a home semi-final, unapologetically fielded a B-team … yet a virtually capacity crowd still turned out in the shadow of Table Mountain to see the Stormers clinch their own home semi with a 38-10 triumph?  

Sadly the much more general, widespread demise of South African rugby both economically – including mass player defections to Europe -- and in terms of the national team’s pretty glaring struggles of late has inevitably impacted the intensity of the rivalry.

From time to time, though, Stormers v Bulls (or the other way around, at Loftus) still commands unexpected pulling power.

Might we be gratifyingly reminded of that on Saturday?

It would be timely tonic if so, given further, relatively bleak evidence from flimsily-occupied stands this season that SA derbies, broadly, may not be quite the hallowed thing the administrators once led us to believe they were.

With double rounds of them in Super Rugby - given the much-debated, ongoing conference system – and more to come when a now-diluted Currie Cup kicks in soon afterwards, is the former golden goose gradually being flogged to death?

There should be very limited excuses for yet another sub-standard gate for a South African derby, if that’s what happens this weekend.

Both sides are scrapping with near desperation for passages to the knockout phase, plus we are fast approaching Springbok squad selection for Rassie Erasmus’s maiden exposure as head coach – making this a trial to a compelling degree, in several positions.

The autumn weather in traditionally sports-mad Cape Town is set wonderfully fair for Saturday, and just another favourable factor is the (now reasonably rare) 15:05 scheduling - as if a throwback to the days when big Currie Cup clashes kicked off at 15:30, still widely considered optimal time from a public convenience and popularity point of view.

My understanding is that an attendance around the 30,000-mark is anticipated.

Frankly, that should be little more than “par”, by my book, if Super Rugby wishes to demonstrate that it remains a stable and appealing enough product.

Ah yes, and let’s not overlook that crisis-torn WP Rugby needs every damned penny it can get.

This game a barometer of Super Rugby’s lustre, or otherwise, in 2018?

Oh, you bet.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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