A tale of two cities
It’s always dangerous for someone sitting on the side of a rugby field to make pronouncement related to the passion or hunger of a team playing in a game.
The recent first-half performance of the Stormers against the Bulls was an example where the word passionless was poised on the laptop keyboard waiting to be injected onto the screen. But although Stormers skipper Jean de Villiers himself echoed the same sentiments after the game, the line had to be counter-balanced with the reality that the Stormers just never had any ball to play with.
So how can you show your hunger and passion if you don’t have the ball? Hah, those who would also like to defend the Sharks’ more recent first-half performance against the Brumbies might also like to ask that question. If you don’t have the ball, you’re just not allowed into the game and you’re not allowed to express yourselves. Right?
Well, as it turns out, maybe not quite. I didn’t get to Kings Park this past weekend because in the end costs forced a choice between another journey to Durban or a visit to the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium to watch the Kings play the Chiefs. I chose the latter option and I am pleased I did - and not just because the Sharks lost.
We should leave it up to the Sharks players to decide whether they played with the right attitude against the Brumbies. The moment of honesty for them is surely when they look at themselves in the mirror. But while I am unable to answer for the Sharks' players, no-one who was at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium would have needed to ask a similar question of the Kings.
Southern Kings director of rugby Alan Solomons spoke after the match against the Chiefs about the decision that had been taken at the start of the season that regardless of the result, the team would go out to forge an identity by showing character and spirit and playing with obvious passion for the cause.
It will get much tougher for them from here, for sure. They have the Crusaders in Christchurch this coming week. But that should not detract from the fact that so far, the Kings have delivered on the promise they made to each other by making it noticeable that they are playing for each other and playing for the cause.
No-one would have expected them to beat the Sharks and the Chiefs over the past two weekends, but the guts and courage that they showed was laudable, and the passion they put into their defence makes them watchable.
Watching the Sharks play the Brumbies on television the next day, it did cross my mind that the Sharks might have competed better had they shown the same obvious frenzied commitment to the cause that the Kings had in repelling wave after wave of strong Chiefs attack in Port Elizabeth the night before.
But then, on the television evidence, the atmosphere was very different too. At Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium you get the impression that the crowd doesn’t arrive with any great expectation. The Mexican Wave that rolled around the ground when the Chiefs were up 32-13 early in the second half told us that the Kings fans just care at the moment that they have top rugby to support and a team of players that clearly play their hearts out.
It reminded me a bit of my early days as a rugby supporter as a schoolboy in Durban. It was the period when Natal were between the Tommy Bedford era and the Wynand Claassen era, with an assortment of different captains, former Wallaby Dick Cocks and current Sharks CEO Brian van Zyl among them, leading teams that lacked talent but got the Kings Park crowd behind them just by being tenacious in defeat.
The game has moved on since then, and you might argue that Durban, after six Currie Cup successes for their team and a couple of appearances in Super 12 and Super 14 finals, will never again be happy with brave defeat. Many of the contemporary Kings Park patrons weren’t even born when Natal were in the B Section of the Currie Cup.
As the old saying goes, there is no place for losers in professional sport, and there has been an expectation that the team should win at Kings Park ever since Craig Jamieson’s team broke a 100-year trophy drought at Loftus in 1990.
But the Kings are at a different point in their cycle, and full marks to their fans for having a sense of perspective. Whereas Kings Park seldom seems that full outside of a test match these days, and for a top-of-the-table clash this past weekend it looked particularly sparsely populated, the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium has had more than 100 000 turnstile clicks across the first three games of the season.
Maybe the marketing people in Port Elizabeth have done a good job, as the fans applaud their team’s bravery like other crowds applaud their team’s tries. “Defence, defence, defence” chanted the crowd as the Kings resisted wave after wave of attack this past Friday night.
You wouldn’t hear that in Cape Town, where the Stormers are constantly criticised for being too defensively minded even though that defensive impregnability has seen them into the top two on the log for the past three seasons. Or for that matter Durban, where the lack of tries prior to the Brumbies game inspired negative comment even though their team was at that point unbeaten.
The expectation in Port Elizabeth may well change in time, and if they have an extended stay in the competition it almost certainly will, but for now it is just refreshing to see a team making such a show of putting bodies on the line for their crowd, and the crowd responding in kind. I can’t wait to visit Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium again.