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Rugby suffers most under Covid-19’s stringent conditions

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By Craig Ray
03 Feb 2021 0

Craig Ray is the Daily Maverick sports editor.

By its very nature, rugby is a gladiatorial sport and the lack of fans and atmosphere, coupled with the sapping high-summer conditions, has robbed the contests of their soul.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

You might read this over breakfast, you might be reading it on Sunday or Monday and by then the Currie Cup final between the Bulls and Sharks will be over. And we can only hope that it was a better spectacle than we have seen throughout the competition, but especially the previous week’s semifinals.

The quality of rugby and the intensity of matches throughout the season, but particularly in the semis, was poor. The Bulls versus the Lions was a little better than Western Province’s arm-wrestle against the Sharks at Newlands. The latter was particularly sad because it was the last time the famous Streeptruie (striped jerseys) will play at Newlands in a competitive match.

It was supposed to be a Newlands swansong, but it resembled a funeral march. The 133-year-old stadium (technically the stands were built in 1919, but it opened in 1888) will be decommissioned soon. There might be a contrived exhibition match to give the stadium an official sendoff, but the Currie Cup semifinal drew the curtain down on the frayed old ground.

Unfortunately it was no grand sendoff, and perhaps it was fitting that the two teams presided over the last rites at Newlands with the type of rugby that wouldn’t have been amiss in the late 19th century.

The match appeared to be played in slow motion, there were hardly more than three passes in any phase of play and set pieces were a shambles. It was like watching a series of collapsed scrums on a never-ending repeat. Almost every breakdown ended in a penalty and it felt like every other movement that encompassed a pass resulted in a knock-on.

The Bulls/Lions contest wasn’t much better, although the teams managed to conjure a few attractive tries. But the litany of errors was only marginally better than the later game. In both matches, the referees also have to take some blame. Rasta Rasivhenge and Marius van der Westhuizen might know the laws intimately, but neither demonstrated any “feel” for the game.

Marginal breakdown calls that, had they been allowed to go on for a few more seconds might have resulted in a better spectacle, were penalised with zeal by the two lawmen. It was no surprise that South Africa’s pre-eminent referee Jaco Peyper was asked to control the final, because the sport needs all the help it can get right now.

Throughout the competition, and at the business end, there was no lack of courage and commitment from the players. They put their bodies on the line and committed to contact and pain as they always do, but only the most one-eyed witness to most matches could claim they provided much entertainment value.

Matches have been painful to watch because the reality is that professional rugby in the time of Covid-19 has probably been harder hit than any other sport.

By its very nature, rugby is a gladiatorial sport and the lack of fans and atmosphere, coupled with the sapping high-summer conditions, has robbed the contests of their soul. The players’ minds may be willing, but their bodies and skills are not able to cope with a combination of heat, a greasy ball and the lack of the intangible mental boost they receive from the terraces.

It might sound ridiculous, but the dead atmosphere inside the cavernous empty stadiums has taken away a few percentage points from performances.

The reasons that the sport has to continue under these conditions have been dissected before. It’s about keeping the rugby alive through honouring broadcast agreements and earning money. It’s about giving athletes purpose, as playing rugby is not only a business for them, it’s also their calling in life.

But if we ask, “Has the Currie Cup, played through the height of summer been good for the sport?” the simple answer is “No”.

This is not about blame. Players and coaches have done their utmost, in trying circumstances. Training minutes are down by half because of Covid-19 protocols. Squads have been disrupted because of Covid-19 positives and the effectiveness of training, in extreme heat, has also been diminished.

National director of rugby Rassie Erasmus recently said that with each passing week coaches and administrators are learning and adapting to a situation no one asked for, and no one had a playbook on.

And that’s fair enough, but right now the only positive is that there isn’t any more rugby scheduled for the next 10 weeks after the Currie Cup final.

Performance levels aside, it was interesting to note that the two sides that made the final are also the two most professionally run teams in SA rugby at the moment.

The Sharks, who were South Africa’s form team and leaders of Super Rugby when the 2020 Super Rugby tournament was suspended after seven rounds, have shown they are going to remain a force in local rugby.

Off the field, they are well run and ambitious. They recently concluded an equity partnership with MVM Holdings involving close to R100-million, and have done a separate marketing deal with the powerful Roc Nation management company.

MVM has not only paid the cash now but has also promised to be an invested partner, meaning its purse strings can be loosened from time to time to ensure its goal of making the Sharks a world rugby leader is met.

The Bulls, under coach Jake White, won Super Rugby Unlocked before advancing to the Currie Cup final. They are also backed by private equity funding, with local billionaires Patrice Motsepe and Johann Rupert as benefactors behind the union.

In a year that has hit all sports in the guts, and rugby particularly hard, it’s revealing that the two leading teams are the two that have the least off-field issues. They are well settled, have young CEOs with ambition and vision, and a war chest through private equity funding to comfortably survive in the short term, and thrive in the future.

That is, if rugby itself can survive the debilitating effects of the pandemic. DM168 

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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