Gavin Rich writing for Business Day
Entertaining and retaining an audience at games is no longer about the result, but about the style of play too, in an era where an easy alternative to watching a live match is to watch several entertaining matches, crossing various sports codes, from a supporters club or even from home.
Arriving at Kings Park for the Sharks’ second home Super Rugby game presented what has become a familiar scenario. The stadium was sparsely populated and there was many a shirt clinging to sweaty skin because of the stifling March humidity.
Those two things are possibly related. The humid conditions tend to turn Kings Park matches into dreary arm wrestles in February and March and many who were at the Waratahs match the previous week just didn’t want to punish themselves again.
A visit to the Crusaders sports club after Kings Park provided a reminder of one of the biggest challenges faced by rugby franchises and unions worldwide. As one patron who is a loyal Sharks supporter explained, he decided against going to watch the Sunwolves game because he also wanted to watch the Lions/Blues clash that followed it.
Not that being able to also watch the full Ellis Park match was the only benefit of watching the Sharks game at the sports club. There were enough TVs in the bar area to satisfy all tastes – those who avoided Kings Park would have been able to watch the Sharks play while also watching the progress of the cricket test in Port Elizabeth, a Six Nations game in Dublin and a fiercely contested soccer match between Manchester United and Liverpool.
This explains why the Sharks are far from alone in confronting the challenge of diminishing turn out. Earlier in the day just 11 000 people watched the Reds play the Bulls in Brisbane. A few seasons ago the same teams attracted 28 000 to that venue.
Of course, the Reds and Bulls aren’t exactly going through the most successful periods of their respective histories. Both are effectively in a rebuilding phase with new coaches in charge and new players being blooded. There is a perception that it is success that attracts big crowds, and that was possibly what prompted Sharks coach Robert du Preez to say that the result was more important to him than performance.
But in this age of myriad rival attractions, that way of thinking may be becoming outdated, and the Sharks might be paying through diminished Kings Park turn-out for a change of culture and playing style that was brought in after John Plumtree was effectively sacked in 2013.
Even Plumtree used to instruct his team to play safety first rugby in the humid months. But later in the year, Plumtree’s team often played a style of rugby that earned them the nickname of the off-load kings of South African rugby. Certainly, that was the case in 2012, when the Sharks recovered from a poor start to the competition to make the final.
But when Jake White took over the coaching in 2014 he built his quest for success around a conservative, defensive mindset. That was actually the only year that the Sharks won the South African conference under the old system and yet it was also the season when Sharks fans started to turn their backs on the team.
The Sharks won many arm-wrestles that year and it wasn’t just during the humid months that they were criticised for winning ugly. White argued that the end would justify the means, and had they won the competition, White would probably have been justified in adopting the approach.
But the Sharks didn’t win Super Rugby and White was effectively shown the door by the Sharks management because of the unhappiness over the turgid rugby his team played. That resulted in a season where the Sharks over-corrected one way under Gary Gold (they neglected defence completely in 2015) and then came over-correction in the other direction when Omar Mounmeine became the defence coach in 2016.
If you look at that sequence a few things become clear – firstly, the style of rugby played is important and winning isn’t everything, secondly a defensive mindset might be hard to shake, and thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, a frequent turn-over of coaches doesn’t help the evolution of a playing style that will put bums on seats.
What the accessibility of top quality overseas games on television, particularly those from New Zealand, also does is help form an opinion on what an entertaining rugby match should look like. The White experience showed that the key to bringing the fans back to Kings Park is not just that the Sharks start to win again, they need to do so with style.
Also read Rich on SuperSport