As the camera panned across the vibrant crowd at the Cape Town Stadium on Saturday it picked up a banner that read “Are you not entertained?”
It’s a great line, bellowed by Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s blockbuster historical drama, Gladiator, which premiered in 2000.
Entertainment value is what the World Rugby Sevens Series has become renowned for and it was the crutch leaned on by many of the bleeding hearts who mistook last week’s column about the Blitzboks to be an unfair comparison between conventional rugby and Sevens.
“Skills” and “entertainment” were thrown up to defend the Blitzboks from a non-existent attack with one reader correctly pointing out that Cape Town Stadium was a sell-out while the Springboks struggle to draw a crowd.
It’s a popular outlook that has led South African rugby by the nose over the past five seasons, searching for the exciting rugby that allegedly puts bums on seats.
The movement is personified by Franco Smith who was drafted in to be the Bok backline coach based on the enterprise displayed by the Cheetahs, who scored 93 tries in 30 Super Rugby matches over the past two seasons for a meagre return of eight wins.
These days, there are more Harley Davidsons on the field before kickoff at Free State Stadium than there are supporters in the stands. And something similar happened in Cape Town on Sunday as half the crowd evaporated after the Blitzboks were eliminated from the Cup race by New Zealand.
This despite the fact that South Africa – boasting Seabelo Senatla, the Series’ leading points-scorer and try-scorer – still had a Bronze final to play, not to mention the Cup final between New Zealand and Argentina.
The prospect of “skills” and “entertainment” didn’t disappear after South Africa lost the semi-final. But half of the crowd filed out of the stadium when the chances of their team hoisting the Cup trophy were reduced to zero, and that’s because – despite what many fans would like to believe about their interest in rugby – supporters pay to watch their heroes win.
In 2010, Dick Muir’s Lions scored nine tries in a thrilling 72-65 loss against the Chiefs at Ellis Park. In the Lions’ next home game, 12,268 people pitched up to watch. The Lions finished that season with a 0-13 record.
In 2012, the Stormers barely passed the ball and didn’t score a single try in a 15-12 win against the Sharks at Newlands. But 38,000 filed into Newlands for their next home game against the Blues, and the venue remained full for the duration of a 14-2 season as the Cape side topped the Super Rugby standings.
Stormers fans whined about the lack of style in those victories. Allister Coetzee responded by launching the quest for sexy rugby in 2013, and Newlands began to leak fans as the stadium went from being the home of contenders to now being the home of the team with what looks like a home-made jersey.
England are suddenly a very loud rugby nation again and that’s because the arrival of Eddie Jones has coincided with a return to winning rugby. Like Jake White and Rassie Erasmus, Jones makes his less-capable peers uncomfortable because he measures himself on wins and losses, not popularity polls.
Under the former Wallabies and Japan coach, England have won 22 of 23 Tests since 2016. They’ll be looking to add to the misery the Boks have endured under Coetzee when they invade South Africa in June.
Whoever is at the helm when Jones arrives would be wise to have spent none of the first six months of 2018 pandering to style concerns, because the same folks who demanded the move away from boring, winning rugby were probably the first to file out of Cape Town Stadium on Sunday.