The Lions deserve a full house for Saturday’s final against the Crusaders, simply because of the rugby they have played for the last two seasons.
There was a time in South African rugby when 50 000 would pitch up on a Wednesday to watch two club sides play. There is a time – and it will be next weekend in Paarl – when 20 000 will watch arguably School Rugby’s biggest derby between Paarl Boys High and Paarl Gymnasium.
And here I am pleading with the pride of Johannesburg’s rugby support base to get to Ellis Park and fill the stadium for a Super Rugby final.
Less than 30 000 (26 000) turned up at Ellis Park for the Lions quarter-final win against the Sharks and less than 30 000 (28 000) witnessed one of the most astonishing Super Rugby play-off comebacks against the defending champion Hurricanes.
The people clearly have spoken with their wallets when it comes to Super Rugby – and it’s not just in Johannesburg. The Brumbies quarter-final against the Hurricanes in Canberra got a crowd of less than 10 000 (capacity 18 000) at the Bruce Stadium.
Even Newlands dipped below the accepted when the Stormers hosted the Chiefs in a quarter-final. The Stormers home support, on average in excess of 30 000 over the past 20 years, managed a crowd of just 21 000.
And in New Zealand, New Zealand’s two champion teams the Crusaders and Chiefs couldn’t fill half the stadium in Christchurch for a semi-final match of the highest quality featuring some of the best players in the world.
The people frankly are fed up with a competition skewed in format and lopsided in every possible way.
The reduction to 15 teams for next year is merely a start to fix what was once the best international provincial competition in the world. Super Rugby, in its current guise, doesn’t command the interest and it doesn’t attract the crowds.
The play-off turnouts in 2017 are the lowest in the competition’s history.
But forget Super Rugby for a minute and think South African rugby. Every year the Currie Cup final is a sell-out and there is no reason why the Lions should not get a similar advantage when hosting the Crusaders in Super Rugby’s final.
South African rugby is on the rise after the shocker that was 2016. The Springboks crushed the French on three successive Saturdays and the public responded positively to every one of the victories.
It was a tough sell to get the public to Loftus Versfeld for the first Springbok Test against the French, but 55 000 made it to Ellis Park for the third and final Test.
The word is that the rugby public of Port Elizabeth – and greater corporate South Africa – will make the Springboks’ Rugby Championship opener against Argentina in Port Elizabeth the first Springbok sell-out of the year – and the first since the Springboks were last in Port Elizabeth.
The city may have lost the Kings to Super Rugby but their appetite for rugby remains. Port Elizabeth is fast becoming the Springbok ‘go to’ place of support and already two thirds of the tickets have been sold for the August 19 showdown with Argentina.
There isn’t a greater sight in South African rugby than a capacity-filled Ellis Park. It remains a coliseum of world rugby and this Saturday’s final will pit the competition’s two best teams against each other, with some of the game’s finest gladiators on display.
Ordinarily it should be a case of there not being a ticket available.
Come on South Africa, show the best two teams in South Africa there is still an appreciation among South African rugby folk for the very finest rugby players.
Super Rugby’s bosses – like the broadcasters who are the commercial lifeblood of the sport – know that more is not necessarily best. Super Rugby, incomparable as a tournament when Super 12, is currently an imitation of this once great competition.
But Saturday’s final will be as good in quality and delivery as any in the 20 year history because the competition’s two best teams will play out the final 80 minutes to decide the champion.
The Crusaders are the only franchise in the 20 year history to win a final in another country, when they beat the Brumbies in Canberra by a single point.
Home ground advantage is such that no other team has ever come close to winning an overseas Super Rugby final.
Everything favours the Lions and everything is weighted against a Crusaders team loaded with the bulk of the All Blacks pack.
This isn’t a game that should need promoting, even if Super Rugby as a concept appears beyond promotion.
Get there South Africa and witness the Lions finest rugby moment that will also hopefully be the catalyst to a memorable Springbok Rugby Championship campaign.
This column appeared in Business Day Newspaper