Has full time hooter blown for Newlands?

08 April 2012 - 02:16 By Dan Retief

There is something just so special about Newlands rugby stadium, perhaps my favourite venue in all the world.

Dan Retief
Dan Retief
Dan Retief
Dan Retief

The walk along Boundary Road, the musty aroma of the adjacent brewery, the distinctive accents of the vendors advertising their goods, the cheeky patois of the friendly Cape throng and, always, the sharp tang of fresh paint applied to the old structure to keep the creeping tendrils of the notoriously clammy weather at bay.

There is no major stadium in the world where you are as close to the action; you can literally smell the liniment on the players and feel the bone-jarring thuds as bodies pile into each other.

It is a place steeped in history and the venue of arguably my most memorable game - the opening match of the 1995 Rugby World Cup when the crowd chanted "Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!" and it felt so good to be South African.

But much like a patched-up old battleship, Newlands is creaking, perhaps beyond repair and headed for the wreckers' yard. Along the way, "just around the mountain" as they say in the Cape, a bold new structure stands proclaiming the message: "It's time to move with the times."

The debate has started in earnest about whether the Western Province Rugby Union, owners of Newlands stadium, should move to the Cape Town Stadium that was built for the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

Protagonists for the move list the benefits, of which there are many, while traditionalists lament the fact that so many are prepared to sever emotional ties and throw away the history attached to Newlands.

It is a sensitive problem that will probably take years of negotiation. The WPRU have to consider their debenture and season-ticket holders (reserved seats that are passed down in wills and have, it is said, been contested in divorce cases) and what to do about the fact that Cape Town Stadium falls well short of the required number of lucrative corporate suites.

It is also a fact that the playing area is slightly smaller than that - with safe surrounds - required for a full-sized international rugby field.

It will take a lot of give-and-take, but fortunately the WPRU and the City Council are talking in a mature, dignified and sensible manner.

The dilemma of what to do about Newlands is by no means unique to Cape Town.

There is a bigger picture, because while the World Cup soccer stadiums are impressive, skyline- dominating structures - like the calabash-like FNB Stadium in Johannesburg and Moses Mabhida in Durban with its distinctive arch - they are white elephants.

With big egos and pressing deadlines involved, the stadiums were revamped or erected in haste with minimum consultation, little care and inadequate cost and income projections.

None have an all-purpose perspective; some have faulty sightlines and other flaws and all have become a burden to the councils to whom they belong.

Stadiums on this scale operate at a massive cost. Just switching on the floodlights is a big decision to take and then you have to factor in items such as security, cleaning and catering personnel.

There are only a few events that can fill these super stadiums to capacity - the Springboks versus the All Blacks, Kaiser Chiefs versus Orlando Pirates or an appearance by a group such as U2. But how many of these can you stage in a year? It would be difficult enough to generate the kinds of events needed to keep just one stadium operational, never mind the collection the country now possesses.

A WP rugby official readily admitted that "Cape Town is not big enough for two big stadiums" and that is true for other cities.

Johannesburg has the most ludicrous situation, with two central city stadiums alongside each other - the "Field of Dreams" Ellis or Coca-Cola Park and the Johannesburg athletics stadium that should never have been built - plus FNB Stadium.

The two former are in what can best be termed an insalubrious area not popular with fans concerned about their safety, while the latter is not quite yet the rapid-transport venue touted in its marketing plan.

In Durban you have Moses Mabhida alongside the ageing King's Park, and logic dictates that the latter should give way to one central venue in a massive sports and recreation park. Most interested parties know it, but, I am told, the Durban City Council's intransigent attitude has proved to be a huge impediment - that and the fact that the new stadium is not ideal for rugby.

Could it be, as was done in South Korea after their soccer World Cup, that some might have to be knocked down, written off as it were, to provide each of the big cities with a single iconic venue capable of being run profitably?