For two years, we were not able to watch our beloved Springboks live, due to the various lockdown restrictions. When the 2022 international season rolled around and the bans on crowd attendance were lifted, it quickly became apparent how much it had been missed. Almost all the Bok's home games were sold out and I was privileged to have been in attendance at all the games this year. I have watched the Boks play in every home stadium, but this article will focus on the 6 used in 2022.
Official stats show that a total of 297 298 people attended the games across the 6 stadiums. This translated to a 98.91% capacity. It was a good test of the stadiums capabilities when the masses arrived and some passed the test far better than others.
With this in mind I set about comparing the different elements of attendance at a Bok game so that I could compare each stadium to the same criteria. The most important things for the stadium to get right were: security, beer distribution, bathrooms, traffic control / ease of access and fan experience (just my general enjoyment at the stadium). I was quite surprised as I am sure you will be too, at which is our worst stadium, and which is our best. So if you're planning on attending any of the games in 2023, this article will help you decide which.
Starting with the worst:
2/10 - Ellis Park (Johannesburg)
Ellis Park is a stadium close to my heart for the many great Springbok achievements that have taken place there over the years. I was in the stands when England toured in 2011, when Lambie slotted the penalty to beat the All Blacks and many, many other tests over the years. After my experience there this year, I firmly believe that should be the last Springbok game played there, it was just a nightmare from start to finish.
We normally made use of the Park & Ride, but this year we took the Gautrain. Arriving at the stadium was already a problem as the busses from Park station didn't know where to go, there had been no special bus lane marked out and they couldn't even tell us where we would be able to find the bus after the game. Maybe I am wrong but surely if you want people to use public transport, you should make it the easier and quicker option so that driving yourself is no longer convenient. You arrive at Ellis Park to see everyone holding their phones and wallets, worrying endlessly about pick-pockets, whilst the SAPS sit around and staring at traffic cones, providing 0 oversight to anyone. This chaos continues when the game ends, only now, a few beers in and the fans are easier targets for the criminal elements surrounding the stadium.
Then the horror of leaving the stadium. The Gautrain had bussed people in intermittently throughout the day, but it seems to have been lost on them that everyone would be leaving around the same time. They were less organized than a meeting of parliament. We stood in the queue waiting for one of maybe 5 busses doing round trips for over an hour, before being informed the Gautrain would close at 9. There were probably a good 7000 people still waiting at that point. So what? well this meant we (fortunately a group of 8 men) had to walk through CBD to park station in the dark. There were no cops and we saw a number of people run into trouble along the way. Never ever again, if you have to go to Ellis, do the Park & Ride, at least their ticketing system caters for the right numbers.
So where does Ellis Parks 2 points come from? They get 1 for the beer tent vibe, with some good live music it made for a chilled afternoon, however getting a beer took longer than watching Dan Biggar do the macarena before a kick. We lost a buddy for a whole half whilst trying to get a beer. The other point comes from their bathrooms, at least here the queue wasn't so bad that you'd miss the game whilst trying to relieve yourself. Another point is that there always seems to be trouble in the stands here as we witnessed guys throwing beers at one another and security just watching on from the walk ways. Ellis Park, I doubt you will ever see me again.
4/10 - Loftus Versfeld (Pretoria)
Loftus is a stadium I have spent a lot of time at, it's right down the road from me and it is where I watched my 1st ever Bok game (2009 series decider against the B & I Lions). Loftus always has a lekker crowd, the beer tent is always a vibe and it generally sees a fair turnout whenever the Green & Gold are playing there. Loftus could easily elevate themselves to a 7/10 if they just took cognisance of the silly security decisions they make and implemented better crowd management strategies.
Loftus, whilst generally a safe stadium to watch a game at, loses all its points for security for 2 reasons. The first is the access management of getting into the stadium. The guards won't let you scan your own ticket to enter, which causes a massive build up at the gates. The beer tent is outside the stadium ground and thus there is a mass rush just before kick off. Putting up a few barriers to organise the queue would go a long way to avoiding this. The second point from security and it's one I feel very strongly about, is their insistence on treating their fans like cattle. Every game, at about 60 minutes, the guards pile in around the field and pull up a fence of about 1m. This just blocks the view of those who paid for front row tickets and in all honesty feels like a way of baiting the drunk guy in the crowd, who was going to streak anyway. No other stadium does this and I simply don't understand the thinking around it. In Bloem and Durban you can practically sit with your feet on the field.
Getting a beer inside is also a fairly new experience as Loftus used to prohibit alcohol in the stadium. Their distribution of beer is slower than the N1 on a Monday morning and one has to wonder who comes up with these systems in the first place. Here they can take a lesson from Cape Town as all of our other stadiums can (more on this later). Once you finally have your beer after likely missing the anthems or even kick off, the stadium itself is great and the entertainment too. Traffic once leaving the stadium whilst heavy, is not of equal measure to the chaos in JHB. A short walk and you can easily grab an Uber, plus the ample parking space around the stadium means you can get to your car fairly easily.
A rethink about how they handle security at the venue, and if they stop treating fans like cattle, Loftus could quickly gain some points for fan experience too. All in all I would return to watch the Bokke play here, but at this point it really is a coin toss between that and watching on tv.
5.5/10 - Toyota Stadium (Bloemfontein)
The 2nd test against Wales was my first time at the Toyota Stadium. It was a game I had been looking forward to with the youngsters getting an opportunity and my general admiration for the Cheetahs as a brand. I thoroughly enjoyed the seating layout with no major barrier between the fans and the field, it really created a great atmosphere and brought us right into the action. We were also fortunate enough to have a friend drop us at the stadium which certainly helped our experience with the traffic. The fact that once you were through the turnstiles, you could walk to any of the beer tents and in and out the stadium with ease was also excellent.
In terms of beer distribution, I think they underestimated the size of the crowd. The queue's for beer were ridiculous across the park. On top of this, the stadium had run out of almost all beverages before half time, leaving many fans angry and disappointed. There was very little thought given here as to how they would control the crowds and ensure everyone was able to get food and drink. As an old stadium, the infrastructure is also lagging behind what we enjoyed at some of the purpose built 2010 stadiums and the bathrooms were a major issue here. If not covered in piss, the queue looked like we were waiting at home affairs, and yes I'm talking about the men's bathroom too.
The crowd was electric though and that atmosphere was really enjoyable. The other issue we experienced was that we somehow ended up in the 'family stand' where a number of supporters were surprised they couldn't have a beer. At no point when booking, nor prior to arriving at the stadium had this been communicated to us or seemingly anyone, as a number of attendees were complaining to security and having to down their drinks at the stands entrance. Better supply chain management would drastically improve the fan experience and maybe it is time some money is sent the Cheetahs way to allow the stadium some much needed upgrades. Security wise the SAPS were in full force and one felt quite safe throughout the day.
7.5/10 - Kings Park (Durban)
Kings Park and the Sharks management deserve a lot of credit for the way the have developed the fan experience in Durban. They are without a doubt the most family friendly venue in the country and they go above and beyond in their pre and post game entertainment. I have always enjoyed how so many gather at Kings Park prior to the game for a braai, with little games of touch breaking out everywhere, it is genuinely a great idea to arrive early and for this reason, I gave them an additional point for fan experience.
Unfortunately load shedding was causing havoc last weekend and the turnstiles locked shortly before kick off. The queue at the gates got a little out of hand, but at least the management had the foresight to stop checking tickets and just to allow everyone in once the gates worked again. This helped ensure no one would miss kick off. Their beer situation however was exactly what we saw at most of the other stadiums. A handful of people pouring cans into cups (causing big delays and pretty crap beer) left guys waiting for ages. Either get a keg or allow people their cans, because this pouring system was abysmal and the inability to control the masses even more so.
The stands at Kings Park also offer some of the best views, as the lower stands have next to no barrier between you and the field, whilst the upper stands, although steep, offer great viewing of the game too. If that isn't for you or you have a kid joining, behind the posts is great too with a slide and swimming pool, jumping castles and the likes to offer entertainment for the kiddies.
On the bathroom front, at least in the stands I was sitting in, there was what seemed a major plumbing issue. Urine was everywhere and for all those with me in the bathroom when that kid decided to jump in the 'puddle' we know this needs to be sorted out in the stadium. Other than that I have always found Kings Park easy to arrive at and leave, with designated spots for Uber helping out greatly. If you aren't in a rush, the on field entertainment is great after the game, even with the rain and there are plenty of bars around the stadium to keep the festivities going. I will definitely be back.
8/10 - Mbombela Stadium (Nelspruit)
Aah the Lowveld, also a first time for me in Mbombela, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We arrived very early for the game and I am thankful for that, apparently winter isn't a thing down there... who would have known. We managed to grab a couple of umbrellas and had a lekker time in the beer garden. The atmosphere was buzzing and the whole town seemed eager to have everyone around for the game. The queues in the beer garden did get quite long, and again lessons should be taken from Cape Town, but this problem wasn't the same inside the stadium which was great news.
Once in the stadium I was quite blown away by the views. The timing was perfect with sunset and the architecture was really well thought out, with the outer beams made to look like Giraffe's. The picture here is one of my favorites. The stadium was well controlled and there was a ton of security without it being in your face like at Loftus. The game on display was also great as the Boks dismantled the All Blacks which really lit up the atmosphere.
We did have friends who got stuck inside the stadium and couldn't join us in the beer tent due to some misdirection when arriving with Park & Ride but other than that it was pretty great. I think a special mention to the grounds lady is also deserved as that pitch was in prime condition. Whilst all the stadiums before can learn a thing or two from Cape Town, Green Point can certainly learn a lot from Mbombela when it comes to rugby fields. Traffic to and from was also well managed, with the only complaint anyone can have being that Nelspruit did not have enough accommodation for those who travelled in (book early next time). I will jump at the chance to watch a game here again.
9/10 - Green Point Stadium (Cape Town)
Now before I get going here, it is important to note that I was 1) heavily opposed to the move away from Newlands and 2) I am a Pretoria guy through and through, so the Cape Town lifestyle is not something that generally appeals to me. On this basis, Green Point started off as my least favorite stadium. All it took though for it to become my favorite was a simple 80 minutes spent there. From the moment we arrived until the moment we left, it ran like clockwork. The only point they lost is for not organising better spots for pickup by Uber and other metered taxis, which was a challenge afterwards.
So let me explain, starting with the beer. Such a simple idea, executed to perfection, Ronnie and I did not wait more than 5 minutes for a beer at the beer tent, nor inside the stadium. So as they do in the airport check in, the stadium put up rails in a zig-zag formation to stagger the crowd queueing for beer. This prevented the masses gathering at the front and overwhelming the bar tenders. They then also had a dual system once you reached the bar. They had a line of people pouring beer and a line of people selling it, talk about efficient. To top it off and this I feel is crucial to success, they only allow two beers per person at a time. This means that you don't get caught behind Frik who keeps adding another 4 or 5 beers to his order for his mate at the back, and you're in and out quickly. The speed of the queue also means you really don't need to carry 20 beers out of the tent each time.
The benefit of the stadium being new, is that the bathrooms were just as efficient, no piss all over the floor, the bathrooms are also under the stands so it helps with traffic inside the stadium as people aren't getting in one another's way and there were plenty of urinals available. The stadium and the grounds were clean and we felt safe the whole time with a lot of police and security present, without being intrusive. SAPS stood at pedestrian crossings stopping traffic to help the crowds cross safely which was a big surprise from what we normally get from our men and woman in uniform. It was a great occasion and whomever is in charge of their game day prep, should be leased out to the other stadiums to teach them a thing or two about organising. Cape Town you can be sure, the Rugby Punt-it would rather pay for flights down there and accommodation, than ever go down the highway to Ellis Park again.
A whirlwind 2022 season was well attended but some of our stadiums shouldn't take for granted they got this year. The people simply missed their rugby, if they don't improve the fan experience and drastically so for some, they will watch their numbers dwindle again. I for one, will never go back to Ellis Park again, it is just not worth it at all.