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Leinster vs Bulls deserves a full house... where is it?

By Daniel Gallan
Sam Prendergast of Leinster kicks a conversion during the United Rugby Championship match between Vodacom Bulls and Leinster at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Say what you want about football, but at least their coaches and players don’t have to moonlight as promoters of their game. In the lead up to this season’s Champions League semi-final, the managers of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich – two of the most successful and well-supported clubs on the planet – spent their press conferences talking tactics and selections. They did not have to sell their product.

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Rugby, for all its marketability at Test level, is not so fortunate. Which is why Jake White, head coach of the Bulls, was compelled to call upon the faithful from Pretoria to fill up Loftus Versfeld this weekend.

“We’re going to need everybody here,” White said in the build up to his team’s United Rugby Championship semi-final against Leinster. “We need 52,000 people here like we did against the Stormers. There’s no use getting a home game and not using that as an advantage.”

To be fair to White, the Bulls, the URC and rugby as a whole, football, and the Champions League in particular, exists in a different stratosphere. The self-aggrandising beautiful game is also the world’s most popular sport and not even an uber-ambitious marketing executive could imagine a future where the two sports operate as equals.

But this is a knockout match between two dynastic teams. The Bulls have bossed the South African landscape since the sport turned professional. They’ve won eight Currie Cups and three Super Rugby crowns and forged a brand identity that is closer to the all-conquering Springboks than any other domestic team in the country.

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Leinster are one of the great clubs on the planet. The four stars on their crest marking their continental titles are a testament to their sustained excellence. They have Irish internationals in every position on the pitch, elicit jealousy and respect in equal measure, and are coached by the World Cup winner Jacques Nienaber. This really shouldn’t be a hard sell.

If rugby is a quasi-religion in South Africa then Pretoria is a spiritual capital. As White pointed out, nearly 52,000 fans crammed their way through the turnstiles to watch the Bulls play their ancient rivals, the Stormers. When tickets went on sale for the Test between the Springboks and Ireland, they were sold out in half an hour. Had the website not crashed, every seat might have been snaffled in half that time.

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Why then has this blockbuster battle between two domestic powerhouses failed to grip the imagination? At the time of writing, just over 18,000 tickets have been sold. According to a Bulls insider, they’ll be “lucky” if they sell more than 25,000.

There are some caveats that need to be addressed. Loftus, like all South African stadiums used in the URC, is enormous by club rugby standards. It has 18,262 more seats than the largest stadium in the Top14 (Bordeaux’s Stade Chaban-Delmas), 24,762 more seats than the largest stadium in the Premiership (Bristol’s Ashton Gate), is more than twice the size of Munster’s Thomond Park and is just a little larger than the Aviva Stadium (which, let’s not forget, was barely half-full for the URC quarterfinal between Leinster and Ulster last weekend).

This means that those responsible for shifting tickets deserve some sympathy. Were they working with the same metrics as their counterparts in France, England or Ireland, they’d be lauded for stuffing their arena to bursting point. In fact, they’d be left with enough disappointed supporters to fill an adjacent fan park. Bath fans are regularly praised for their continued loyalty to their club, filling The Rec every week despite the dross served by their players over the last decade. But all the seats at The Rec would fit neatly into one stand at Loftus.

At R50 (£2.14) a ticket for the Leinster clash – roughly the price of a pint of lager at most pubs in South Africa – an unoccupied seat would be a sign of a lack of interest, rather than funds. Marcell Coetzee, co-captain of the Bulls, told me this week that, “real rugby fans don’t need me to tell them about Leinster,” implying that there is a core group who recognise the quality of the opposition and the challenge that faces the Pretorians.

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Coetzee wasn’t being disparaging of casual fans. He was not suggesting that every support had to have a strong opinion on Caelan Doris’ ball-carrying capabilities. But he was proposing that the significance of this occasion has failed to penetrate beyond a narrow corridor. For rugby tragics, this has been billed as a de facto Test that is a tantalising appetiser to the more substantial main event against Ireland in a few week’s time. Everyone else has simply not noticed.

Much of this has to do with the nascency of the URC. If asked to name a foreign club, I imagine most South Africans that do not identify as ardent rugby fans would likely cite the Crusaders or the Brumbies before mentioning Leinster, Toulouse or Northampton Saints. This is a consequence of 24 years of Super Rugby. Games against the red machine from Canterbury or the Aussies in white from Canberra still elicit strong emotional responses. The rhythm of early morning matches in New Zealand followed by a noon kick-off in Australia before an evening game in South Africa was a familiar comfort. The URC might be an elite league but it is still new.

Then there is a variable that White and his Bulls can control. It’s a cliché to say that South Africans love a winning team. Of course, it’s true, but one could make the case that their disdain for a losing side provides a more visceral pull. The Springboks and Sharks prop, Vincent Koch, made a similar argument before his club’s Challenge Cup victory over Gloucester.

If the Bulls can cause an upset and beat a truly world-class Leinster outfit, perhaps they might sway those fans stuck on the fence. Should they go on and triumph in the grand final next week, maybe then the visit of a foreign team might yield a sold-out Loftus.

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Comments

9 Comments
S
Synergy 32 days ago

NH still whinging about losing the RWC to S A 😄

j
jacques 32 days ago

Only the Stormers have truly faithful supporters. That is why a game between the Bulls and Stormers is always sold out or close to it. The Bulls only went through a golden era from 2007-2010 where most games sold out because they were winning. Even before covid the bulls would have 5000 people on average at loftus in the super rugby. Only winning the comp this and next year will most likely change that. Otherwise 20 000 will be a good number for them.

M
Mitch 33 days ago

Ellis Park wasn’t exactly full when the Lions hosted super rugby semi finals in 2016, 2017 and 2018 but it did sell out very quickly for the 2017 super rugby final which the Lions hosted.

T
Timmyboy 33 days ago

Get SA out NH rugby , the whole things become a joke

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