Letter From Cape Town: An unexpected but welcome return to famed Newlands Stadium

It is three years since the Springboks last played at Newlands, which now lies mostly unused
Letter From Cape Town: An unexpected but welcome return to famed Newlands Stadium

UNDER THE MOUNTAIN: The Stormers played their final Super Rugby Unlocked game here last November, signing off with a 30-13 victory over the Cheetahs but it was not the send-off they had envisaged, with Covid seeing the game played behind closed doors. Picture: Carl Fourie

Cape Town Stadium, down on the Mother City’s waterfront, will this evening renew its duties as host to the British & Irish Lions and their quest to overcome world champions South Africa.

It is a stunning venue, clad in steel and looking for all the universe like a spaceship has landed by the Atlantic Ocean shoreline, but was actually built for the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

Yet in a parallel universe it would not be this modern 58,000-seat arena that the Springboks now call home when they are in town but the oldest Test venue in the southern hemisphere, 12km away and on the other side of Table Mountain.

That is where Newlands resides, the 51,000-capacity stadium so full of rugby legend in the suburb of the same name: Where the Lions first played in 1891, winning the third Test 4-0, and faced the Springboks a further 11 times up to 1997.

It is also where Ireland claimed their first Test win on South African soil in 2016, when Joe Schmidt’s men overcame the loss of CJ Stander to a first-half red card from French referee Mathieu Raynal for his high hit on Patrick Lambie to win 26-20. And it is where we drove past this week and saw Western Province players filing out after training and spotted an opportunity to walk on some hallowed rugby ground.

It is three years since the Springboks last played here, losing to England in June 2018, saying their goodbyes as the WP union made it known they were selling up and moving from this leafy suburb down to the shiny new superstructure by the water.

Yet WP are still there, the stadium lies mostly unused, and the real estate that can be so lucrative for the several developers interested in the site is entangled in a legal wrangle over the sale of the land.

The global pandemic adds to the air of eeriness although the current Covid-19 lockdown was eased somewhat last Sunday night when South African president Cyril Ramaphosa extended the nationwide curfew from 9pm to 10pm at night to 4am each morning and allowed for alcohol to be sold again until 8pm each evening.

Yet the streets remain quiet in this well-to-do suburb and the Test cricket ground of the same name, in winter hibernation just over the road, adds to the subdued atmosphere.

It is the side of the mountain the residents call the “old money” part of town, with its high-end restaurants, large houses, and tree-lined avenues in contrast to the “new money” of the waterfront and its swish apartment blocks, beaches, and marinas, though both sides tend to be serviced and maintained by the majority of Cape Town’s 4m-plus population who have no economical choice but to live in the overpopulated townships on the outskirts of the city.

They would have been working in the numerous rugby pubs still dotted around Newlands, like the Barristers, where fans would gather for pre-match pints before walking to the stadium, but which only reopened on Monday lunchtime after the green light from Ramaphosa. Nice one Cyril.

The pre-match pints are a thing of the past now, though, with no rugby within walking distance anymore.

We ask the stadium manager, who is shepherding the players out, if we can have a look and, after a temperature check and spray of hand sanitiser, we are allowed in, straight into a room where the blue and white hooped jerseys of WP’s most famous sons, including Percy Montgomery and Jean de Villiers, are framed on the walls and where this reporter last remembers interviewing Mike Ross and Andrew Trimble in the post-match media huddle.

On this day, though, we venture a little further, up the tunnel and onto the pitch.

It is much the same as it was five years ago, save for the peeling advertising hoardings on the top deck of one of the imposing stands that tower over the playing surface and must have made for such an intimidating atmosphere for visiting teams as passionate Springbok supporters roared their national anthems, ‘Die Stem’ and, since 1997, combined with ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’.

The Stormers played their final Super Rugby Unlocked game here last November, signing off with a 30-13 victory over the Cheetahs but it was not the send-off they had envisaged, with Covid seeing to it that the game was played behind closed doors. When the 2021 season got under way, they had decamped to Cape Town Stadium and that was where Western Province have followed them to for their Currie Cup campaign, except for last night, that is.

What should have been another night in the spaceship on the other side of Table Mountain turned into a return to Newlands for one last game and Covid was again responsible.

With the Springboks and Lions agreeing not to return to Johannesburg, where there are much higher incidences than Cape Town per 100 people, it is the Test match that takes precedence at Cape Town Stadium this weekend and next, when the final Test takes place at the same venue for the third Saturday in succession.

So yesterday, Western Province played host to Currie Cup premier division rivals the Bulls at their old stomping ground. The spectators remain absent, there is a long way to go before they will be allowed back into stadia in South Africa, yet rugby had returned and, just for one night, it felt good to see it played on the other side of Table Mountain.

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