Jon Cardinelli

Eastern Cape energy a triumph

JON CARDINELLI writes the Sharks scored the most points and the Kings defended like demons, but it was the crowd at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium that made the biggest statement.

'What was the crowd figure tonight?' asked John Plumtree rhetorically. 'Was it 45,000? Was it 50,000? I can tell you that with all that noise, it felt like a helluva lot more.'

Plumtree looked relieved when he spoke at the press conference following the Sharks' 21-12 victory. He confirmed that the determined defence of the Kings had succeeded in rattling the Sharks, and that the oppressive atmosphere inside the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium had also got to the visitors.

Indeed, you had to be at the stadium to gain a true appreciation for the energy at work. Thousands of Sharks supporters attended, and could be heard cheering whenever their team enjoyed success. That noise, however, was a squeak compared to the roar that would accompany each Kings tackle or the absolute bedlam that would follow each Demetri Catrakilis penalty goal.

Those who watched the game on TV cannot understand the forces that were at play. It was a collective force that inspired the Kings to lift their standards, and a force that most certainly willed the Sharks to play below theirs.

Plumtree acknowledged the Kings afterwards, confirming that the players had earned respect, but there was also another, possibly bigger, statement made by the contingent beyond the four white lines.

We've all heard the official line from Cheeky Watson and company that the Eastern Cape is a proud and passionate rugby region that is desperate for top-flight exposure. We've now seen this to be true in the first two Super Rugby matches played at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

A magnificent stadium plus a particularly ardent and vocal support base equals an atmosphere up there with anything else in South Africa, if not the world.

Those who have been fortunate enough to watch live rugby around the country will know the feeling. They will have witnessed the partisan crowd at Loftus Versfeld, they would have seen the fierce loyalty to the Bulls that at times borders on hostility. Those who have attended live matches will also have been among the chaos and clamour of a capacity crowd at Newlands. It's an energy that's impossible to ignore, a feeling that makes watching live sport such a special experience.

Last Saturday, I attended a match at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium for the third time. The atmosphere was equal to that of what I had experienced when the Springboks played the All Blacks at the same ground in 2011, and when the Boks battled England in 2012. It may seem a crazy thing to say, but the locals cheered their new Super Rugby franchise as fiercely as they had cheered the Boks.

Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps it shows that the region truly is hungry for rugby, and that having a team to support gives them an outlet for that passion. For 17 years, rugby fans in the Eastern Cape were forced to support one of the other South African Super Rugby franchises. Now they have a franchise of their own.

And let's give credit where it's due. The team that has been assembled in 2013 has given the locals a reason to cheer.

The Kings have been done no favours by Saru, and as newcomers to the competition they should be expected to struggle just as the Western Force did in 2006 and the Melbourne Rebels did in 2011. Against the odds, the Kings have managed to win their first game. Somehow, they've managed to produce a competitive performance against the Sharks: a side stacked with Springboks; a side that qualified for the 2012 Super Rugby final.

Director of rugby Alan Solomons understands that results are important, but he truly believes that the crowd will continue to pack the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium for as long as the Kings display that never-say-die attitude. The way the crowd cheered the Kings' defence last Saturday, and the way the locals celebrated after the final whistle despite the 21-12 loss suggests that Solomons has good reason to have such faith.

There will be, of course, those who are determined to see the Kings fail on every possible level.

I overheard a few colleagues chatting about the game at the Port Elizabeth Airport on Sunday morning. Much of the talk was about 'how bad the Sharks were'. These men were determined to talk about where the Sharks went wrong, how the Kings got lucky, and in one case, the 'poor standard of South African rugby'.

I couldn't believe my ears. Most of them seemed unaffected by what had transpired the day before. When one of them dared to raise the topic of the fantastic local support, the most senior member of the group laughed cruelly. 'When they lose a few in a row, they'll struggle to fill half that stadium,' he said. They'd missed the point completely.

It's not that I disagree with the assertion that Kings will lose the majority of their matches in 2013. No, it is to be expected, as passion alone won't win the Kings games.

What should be acknowledged, however, is that something special is happening in the Eastern Cape. The passion for the game and for the new franchise has been evident in the terrific support displayed by the local fans in the past two matches. It is surely something that should be lauded and celebrated, not dismissed nor derided.

Photo: Chris Ricco/BackpagePix

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