Wind of change
June 21, 2012
The Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth will play host to the third Test between South Africa and England on Saturday © PA Photos
If there is a city in South Africa through which the wind of change could aptly blow, it would be Port Elizabeth. Known for its gusts, it is the one town that the Harold McMillan speech could apply to literally, figuratively and even topically.
The subject of the change - rugby - has been intrinsically linked to what McMillan referred to in his address - politics. Long seen as the sport of the ruling class during South Africa's dark days, rugby has remained elite. Although transformation has taken place at some levels, there are areas that it still has not permeated and the Eastern Cape, up until very recently, was one of them.
The area is made up of three unions, Eastern Province, who hail from Port Elizabeth, Border from East London and South Western Districts, in George. "They were the only three provincial teams that were not linked to a franchise," Cheeky Watson, president of the Southern Kings franchise explained to ESPN. "The whole region was just left in a dark corner, there was no top-class rugby."
There was a clear case of neglect of a certain part of the country but its desertion was not limited to rugby alone. The Eastern Cape has not had a football team in the premier soccer league besides the much-maligned Bay United who played for a season in 2008-9 and were swiftly relegated. The cricket ground, despite being the oldest in the country, is no longer a first choice Test venue and last hosted one five years ago.
If the Eastern Cape was barren of talent, ignoring it would perhaps be excusable. But, the opposite is true. Not only is the province home to some of the country's best schools which have produced generations of fine sportsmen, it is also has the biggest concentration of black African talent in the land. Where it lacks is finances and to some degree the glamour that accompanies cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town and sporting powerhouses like Pretoria and Bloemfontein.
That is not justification for freezing it out of sport at the level just below international and has only resulted in a player drain. From Deon Kayser, who played 13 Tests for the South Africa to Keegan Daniel who was poached straight from school, players from the area have to flood the structures in other provinces to get recognition. While the biggest beneficiary has probably been the Durban-based Sharks, the Eastern Cape's teams only became poorer. "We could not offer any player, anything," Watson said. "So we were left with almost nothing."
South African sports administrators have had consciousness forced on them and Eastern Cape rugby received a major boost when they were allowed to form a franchise ahead of the British & Irish Lions tour in June 2009. "That was the start of the rise of rugby in our area," Watson said. Although Port Elizabeth did not host a Test on that tour, they would play in a midweek match against the visitors and did not disgrace themselves despite a 20-8 loss.
Significant developments accompanied the formation of the new franchise. The Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, which had been built for the football World Cup in 2010, would be its home. There was nothing wrong with the Boet Erasmus ground, it was grungy. It hosted Test matches on occasion but it did not hold the same aura as some of the other venues and could be overlooked on the international calendar when events such as the Tri-Nations came around. Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium cannot. It is imposing and gleaming and has forced its way onto the fixture list.
"It was one of the best venues in the country," Watson claimed, not without his own bias. "It's not too big it retains that warm, cozy feeling." With a capacity of just under 43,000 and a petal-like roof structure that hugs the stands, he has a point.
Last year, it hosted a Tri-Nations match against New Zealand, this weekend it will see the Springboks play England and every year until 2016, it will be the venue for the South African leg of the IRB Sevens World Series. To move that event from its traditional home on George, was an indication that there was a serious move to include Port Elizabeth and the Kings in the national rugby dialogue. It was also a confirmation that rugby would no longer be the domain of only a select few, but would be opened up to the masses as it went from the retirement village of PW Botha, who moved to Wilderness just outside George, to a city with a massive rugby-loving population.
It's an attempt to reach out to those who rugby previously ignored, people who Watson calls the "heart and soul of black rugby." He explained that the rugby-loving people of Port Elizabeth encompass a wide demographic, with a rich history, and that South Africa would do well to make better use of them. "What makes us unique is that we have people from all cultural groups supporting rugby here," Watson said. "We have clubs here that have been around for 120 years so we have interest and we have players."
One of those clubs is Motherwell, who lost six of their players in a drowning accident in Bluewater Bay in March. Motherwell is one the biggest black townships in the province and not the only one with a rugby club, testament to the sport's popularity among people of all races.
A similar attempt, albeit a flawed one in some ways, to the guarantee that was given to the Southern Kings on their Super Rugby status. Although the South African Rugby Union have not figured out how to accommodate the new franchise (it will either have to relegate one of the existing teams or force an amalgamation similar to the Cats between two of them), one thing that is certain is that the Kings will play. The squad they end up with may not fully achieve the aims of promoting local rugby at first - they have admitted to having source players, mostly expats from overseas - but Watson said in time it will. "We've been preparing long and hard and we're looking forward to playing in the competition."
Their inclusion will be a celebration of the game in the province and an acknowledgment that they are getting the recognition people like Watson feel they deserve. Port Elizabeth winds of change are blowing fiercely and Watson hopes they will be felt by those in attendance at the match on Saturday. "The vibe already started in Monday. It's absolutely buzzing and everybody is so excited and so hungry for good rugby," he said.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.