When tickets went on sale recently for this year’s Springbok home games, fans leapt at the opportunity to see our World Cup winners in action for the first time since 2019. And now the president has further upped the excitement levels by announcing that stadiums may operate at 50% capacity, provided attendees are fully vaccinated or have a negative COVID test. Of course, there’s a decent chance that the tickets were sold based on 100% capacity, but let’s not open that can of worms just yet – there’s still time for more announcements and further easing of restrictions.
There are those who won’t be satisfied with 50% capacity, and I’d agree that we’d all prefer to see our stadiums full for the Springboks’ home games this year, but 50% is a LOT better than 2000 people. I’ve been to two games under those restrictions, and as much as I was thrilled just to be back in the stadium, they were still a little weird. It’s hard to generate an atmosphere with so few people, although we gave it our best. Loftus was a lot less intimidating for this Sharks fan with limited numbers, but I’m even willing to deal with the consequences of capacity crowds there too, just to see people back in the stands.
Let’s face it, those empty stadiums really took their toll last year, especially during the British & Irish Lions series. And I’m not just talking about the lack of atmosphere or the players having to forego the screaming support of fans. I’m talking about the dynamics between the fans from opposing sides as well. I think we can all agree that last year was….testing. There was a lot of negativity surrounding the Lions tour in particular, and of course it predominantly played out in the media and on social media. While we’ll never have any control over the media narrative, and there will always be toxic commentary on social media, getting fans back into the stadium is, I believe, essential to healing that rift.
Apart from one really strange occasion at Croke Park in Ireland, I have never had a bad experience with opposition fans while in a stadium. I’ve watched the Springboks take on a wide variety of opponents, both here and overseas, and there has always been nothing but camaraderie and good-natured banter between fans. In fact, people often ask me how I can go to games alone, and I say there’s no such thing as being alone at a rugby game – it’s a community, and that community extends to the opposition’s fans too. The first time I went to watch the Springboks play the All Blacks at Ellis Park, I was seated next to All Blacks supporters who had travelled from the UK for the game. By the end of it, they had bought me an ice cream and we were veritable besties, despite the fierce rivalry (and the Springboks losing). I have photos of myself with random Scottish supporters before our game against them in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and have shared countless drinks, chats, jokes, and even scarves with different opposition fans over the years. We lost all that when the stadiums fell empty, and instead we were left with irritability, negativity, and faceless Twitter arguments, at a time when everyone was pretty grumpy and anxious to begin with. It sucked a lot of the joy out of what should have been our triumphant return to rugby.
So beyond just the sheer excitement of seeing the team live again, I’m really looking forward to getting back into the stadiums this year and reconnecting with rugby fans across the spectrum. I’m hoping it will help me shake off some of the antipathy I’ve been feeling towards sides I used to enjoy watching, and who’s fans I used to have fun with. I already have tickets to four games, with at least one more bound to happen…here’s hoping we’ll be back to full houses by then!
2 July: Springboks v Wales – Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
9 July: Springboks v Wales – Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein
16 July: Springboks v Wales – DHL Stadium, Cape Town
6 August: Springboks v All Blacks – Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit
13 August: Springboks v All Blacks – Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg
24 September: Springboks v Argentina – Hollywoodbets Kings Park, Durban