After long Covid effects, rugby finds itself again as URC gains street cred

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Bulls celebrating. (Photo by Anton Geyser/Gallo Images)
Bulls celebrating. (Photo by Anton Geyser/Gallo Images)

The Bulls flexed their on and off-field muscle to make the URC semi-finals over the Sharks. Their fans gave the new URC tournament the biggest stamp of approval, gracing Loftus in their sky blues as they used to during their Super Rugby heyday.

It was the day rugby could breathe unassisted for the first time since suffering long Covid effects of fan-less parks, letting out a huge sigh and a reverberating roar as loud as Bulls fans when Chris Smith scored the match-winning drop-goal at the buzzer.

Last year, the pandemic took the life out of the British & Irish Lions series, causing irreparable financial and emotional damage to the pre-historic spectacle.

It relegated the much-loved domestic game to "preparation series" meaninglessness. But this quarter-final, which has come to define Jake White's time in Pretoria, came like the doctor's words when discharging you after reading your last test results: "The cancer is benign."

It was a day when a new tournament gained its street cred.

READ| 84th-minute drop goal sees Bulls sink Sharks in epic Loftus knockout

It happened by coincidence but it was fitting that the Bulls were the team to usher the United Rugby Championship (URC) fan buy-in. After all, the sky blues were SA's chief emissaries in Super Rugby, winning three titles, the most of any, before SA Rugby's withdrawal.

The Bulls became the first South African team into the URC semi-finals with their 30-27 win over the Sharks.

The URC came about as South Africa's desperate attempt to move the country's rugby to calmer waters, friendlier time zones and deeper pockets.

But no amount of boardroom bargaining and marketing can get you what a rollicking Bulls performance in front of their flag-waving, Kaptein-singing fans can give you.

Two giant banners hung in the middle of the Loftus east stand reading: "URC: A different league." The triumph of the bright and summer winter's day was that it felt like the intercontinental competition of old.

The URC trophy launched last Friday looked like an abstract, metallic artistic impression of Wesley Snipes in the movie Blade. As shiny as the new gong that's up for grabs is, the glamour remains in the mud under the studs: on the rugby field.

"It was a fantastic rugby game. What’s going to happen now is, these Bulls supporters will keep coming back.

"You look at the URC and where it started, everyone was a bit sceptical about the URC but any supporter who wasn’t sure of the tournament will look at that game and say that’s something they can watch again," White said after the match.

Although a local derby was bound to draw the estimated 25 000 fans in attendance, the fact that there was jeopardy gave it an extra edge. The Sharks went to the capital believing they could win where they've rarely succeeded since White returned.

For long stretches at the beginning and near the end of the game, the Sharks looked like they could silence the boisterous crowd.

But they didn't play the middle overs well, which was when the Bulls inflicted their most damaging blows after Madosh Tambwe's early breakaway try.

Tambwe, Marcell Coetzee, Johan Grobbelaar, Cornal Hendricks and Ruan Nortje, players who have become standout performers, were again outstanding.

Phepsi Buthelezi, for the Sharks, also had his coming-of-age moment, giving the visitors going-forward momentum that you'd expect subdued Siya Kolisi to have given them.

For the most part, though, the Sharks played with the immaturity that belied their Springbok experience. The Bulls were the total opposite.

The Loftus faithful also played an ambassadorial role in showing bureaucrats that the hunger for 100% spectator attendance is there. With Springbok Tests coming up against Wales, these were signs rugby followers wanted to see.

Clashes like these, where fuller crowds are thrilled by an enrapturing spectacle, prevent the sports industry from going to the wall.

It was also a positive portend for the URC, that, on a day when Super Rugby Pacific also had its quarter-finals, the new European competition pulled traditionalists into old colosseums.

This was the Bulls' last home match of the season. But it won't be the last Loftus will see their team make tournament magic.

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