All bets are off in Rugby Challenge

Thu, 18 May 2017 13:49
Large supersport rugby challenge banner 800

ADVERTORIAL: It's not often that a first class rugby game is played as a curtain raiser to a club game.

However, that was exactly the case a fortnight ago at the Alberton Rugby Club, south of Johannesburg, when the Lions did their demolition job of the Namibia Welwitschias in the SuperSport Rugby Challenge.

Before anyone starts banging on about it sounding about right that the Welwitschias - who have conceded more than 50 points in all four of their games and leaked 112 in that match against the Lions - were given the same billing as a club rugby side would, there's a perfectly logical explanation.

Had the game begun at 5pm, which is when Alberton Rugby Club and the West Rand Harlequins got on to the park, the quality of the stadium's lighting would have been a problem for TV purposes. And so two first class teams, one a national team, got to play in a curtain raiser for club sides.

If the places it has gone to and the adjustments teams have had to make as a result is anything to go by, the Rugby Challenge -which reaches the halfway mark of the pool stages this weekend - has announced itself as a rugby tournament with a difference in its inaugural year.

With the introduction of triple-header festivals played on the unusual day of Sunday at community stadiums some of the hosts haven't even heard of, the Rugby Challenge has travelled to some interesting corners of the country.

For example, the Pumas hosted the Lions at the KaNyamazane Stadium - an all-purpose stadium mostly used for soccer - just 2.5km from the real lions at the Mthethomusha Game Reserve.

The EP Kings took their opening game to the first festival at Wolfson Stadium at KwaZakhele Township, which had seen rugby before but not hip hop superstar Cassper Nyovest, if the reaction of the 11 000 who turned up to seeing him was an accurate gauge.

And so unheralded stadiums like City Park in Cape Town, Ashton College (Ballito) and Ceres (Boland) found themselves elbowing for room with institutional giants like Loftus Versfeld, King's Park, Ellis Park et al in hosting first class rugby.

An unintentional but entirely welcome aside is how being in a home ground that isn't quite a home ground has set up some upsets.

In the first two rounds only Western Province and the Falcons won at home in 12 matches, which Leopards coach Jonathan Mokuena attributed to teams not being familiar enough with their alternative stadiums to give them home ground advantage.

"Is it really home ground advantage?" he asked. "It's not like the teams are playing at Ellis Park or Newlands, it's at small community stadiums where the (home) players aren't quite familiar with their surroundings."

Playing on Sunday has also thrown some teams, what with it traditionally being seen as a day for going to church, spending time with family and generally being a rest day for most rugby sides. Lions coach Bafana Nhleko said the difficult part was adjusting to a longer preparation week.

"Everyone has to play on Sunday so we have to adapt," he explained. "The boys struggled a bit mentally, where it felt like it was long week for them. But the flipside is that you've actually got an extra day to prepare, our biggest challenge now is pitching up on Tuesday to prepare for the Bulls."

For all that change, the fact that Western Province and the Lions are the only unbeaten sides going into the halfway mark of the pool stages means some things have stayed the same, with the Bulls and the Sharks XV recovering from shaky starts.

But as for the rest - where the Leopards are taking no prisoners; the Border Bulldogs are staying in the fight longer than they should; and the Free State XV has yet to win a game - all bets are off.