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Not losing sight of rugby’s heartbeat

South Africa’s record defeat to New Zealand has cast such a shadow over South African rugby that it is tempting to think the dark clouds are gathering over every aspect of our national game.

I beg to differ. It’s true that the struggling Springboks, sitting atop the professional pyramid, are the public face of South African rugby and a barometer of its success. It’s also true that our rugby is grappling with a number of challenges at present but to focus on those – as we must – would be to lose sight of the fact that, at the lower levels, rugby’s heartbeat remains strong.

If you doubt this, get into your car this Saturday and take a drive to, say, Rustenburg, Durbanville, Brakpan, or virtually anywhere across the sweeping Boland and you will see a vastly different face of our beloved sport.

Club rugby – for more than a century the concrete cornerstone of South African rugby – is making a colourful comeback after a generation spent in the shadows. Professionalism might have taken the grassroots game to the brink of irrelevance, but like a hardy desert plant it has survived the drought and is set to bloom once more.

Everywhere you look, from Wellington to Welkom, Pretoria to Pacaltsdorp and everywhere in between across this vast country, club rugby is back on its feet and returning to centre stage. Anyone doubting this would not have been in the Cape Winelands town of Worcester earlier this year, where an official crowd of 11 347 crammed into Esselen Park – which famously hosted the 1996 All Blacks – to watch the big town derby between Young Hamiltons and Worcester Villagers.

Such huge numbers – frequently dwarfing attendances at many provincial games – are not unusual, especially in the villages and towns of the Western and Eastern Cape. George, Oudtshoorn, Robertson, Saldanha, Despatch, Grahamstown…these are towns that come to a standstill on dry and dusty Saturday afternoons.

But this revival of interest – and hunger for perhaps a more authentic rugby experience – is not exclusive to the south. Earlier this season, 16 184 fans in Gauteng each paid their R10 to get into Alberton Rugby Club where they were treated to a unique ‘two for one’ deal: a club derby followed by the Golden Lions against the Blue Bulls.

Which brings us to this coming Saturday, when Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria provides the stage for a unique double-header which is, at once, a throwback to the good old days but also most importantly, a blueprint for how things could be done in future.

The Currie Cup semifinal between the Blue Bulls and Western Province (kick-off 6pm) will be preceded by the Gold Cup quarterfinal between the champion clubs of these two proud provinces, Pretoria Police and DirectAxis False Bay – the latter, famously once coached by Nick Mallett, having beaten the likes of Maties and UCT to win their first WP Grand Challenge title since 1972.

Many of our big stadiums have not seen a club curtain-raiser to a Currie Cup match in many years. The Police-Bay clash is however the second time that Loftus has done this over the past few weeks, and on Saturday the Gold Cup clash will once again be televised live on SuperSport (channel 197 at 3:10pm).

Things were so different as recently as four years ago, when club rugby among so-called ‘open’ clubs was firmly headed down a dead-end street. The national club championships, which had been held since 1975, had lost its sponsor, while broadcasters and media had largely switched off, the slick and sexy Varsity Cup having sponged up most of the attention.

In their attempt to provide a catalyst for the revival of the club game, SA Rugby created the Community Cup, featuring 20 top open clubs playing a World Cup-style tournament. The pre-season tournament, which was held from 2013-2015, attracted a sponsor and encouraging TV coverage. Club rugby, for so long seen as a career cul-de-sac and not worthy of respect or support, was once again showing signs of life.

This year, the tournament has exploded into life. Rebranded as the Gold Cup and re-positioned as a post-season climax to the club calendar, it has also come into its own as a high-quality platform for some of the country’s best amateur players to show off their talents to a national audience.

In fact, that should read ‘international’, because the Gold Cup this year included for the first time the champion clubs of Namibia and Zimbabwe, as part of SA Rugby’s strategic mission to assist in the upliftment of our neighbouring countries’ domestic game.

Last month’s Gold Cup opening match, staged at Boland Park in Worcester, drew a crowd of almost 10 000 and, perhaps more significantly, attracted a television audience of almost a quarter of a million people.

Last weekend’s top-of-the-table clash in Rustenburg between home side Impala and Johannesburg’s historic Pirates club, was broadcast live before the Springboks-All Blacks test – an unprecedented showcasing of a club game. It produced an 88-point spectacle of skill, courage and raw talent by working-class men who, unrestricted perhaps by the professional player’s instinct for self-preservation, play every match as if it is their last. The result is unscripted, absorbing theatre.

The Gold Cup is not only about the big teams. Every province is represented, many by so-called ‘platteland’ teams such as White River (Mpumalanga), Sishen (Griquas), Rhinos (Limpopo) and Welkom Rovers (Griffons). Throw in Wanderers of Windhoek and Old Georgians from Harare and you have a fully-fledged ‘tri nations’ club tournament that sees mechanics and teachers, factory workers and salesmen travelling the length and breadth of the country.

Over the past few weeks, many young men of all backgrounds have flown in a plane or stayed in a hotel room for the first time. Many have woken up in a foreign country having perhaps never left the town in which they were born.

For a fleeting few days, these remarkable players, who juggle the stresses of work, unemployent, family and rugby, have stayed in top hotels and savoured what it is like to live the life of a professional player. For the best of the more than 600 players who’ve taken part, this taste will have spurred them on to emulate the story of Garth April, who went from kicking the winning penalty in last year’s Gold Cup final to coming within a whisker of winning a Springbok cap this year.

But for the vast majority of players, the Gold Cup represents the pinnacle of careers which, but for a twist of fate or an untimely injury, might have taken a very different route. For the length of time it takes to play a match on a Saturday afternoon, these amateur players transform into working-class heroes for entire communties for whom loyalty to their club, built up over many generations, is more important even than their province or country.

The Gold Cup is a feel-good South African rugby story – and it’s playing out at a club near you.

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