Saturday, July 08, 2006

Into the Shark Tank

We made good time on the overwhelmingly uphill trip from Durban to Johannesburg today. The topography changes dramatically -- from lowveld to highveld, from green, lush valleys to stark brown farmland punctuated by dramatic rock outcroppings. And the transition from Durban to Joburg is a remarkable one as well, with the latter spreading outward from ocean and bay toward the Midlands and with Joburg a dense, sprawling urban mass jutting from the middle of the landscape.

Yesterday afternoon I realized that the Sharks, Durban's professional rugby team and entry into the Currie Cup, South Africa's largest and most important domestic league, were playing the Pumas, who travelled down from Nelspruit in Mpumalanga. We decided to head along. ABSA Stadium is not far from the northern beaches and like all major stadia looms like a haven of dreams, all the more wondrous when lit up at night. For a sports fan a stadium on game day is one of mankind's great natural wonders. The Shareks have been down on their luck in recent years, but a decade ago dominated both domestic rugby and the selections for the Springboks. Heading into last night's game they had won both of their games and hoped to continue their early run of success.

The Shark tank was only half full last night. The size and scale of a typical professional sporting arena -- though it would be a bit small for a major college or NFL team -- ABSA also has all of the advertising and marketing of its American or British peers, albeit maybe a bit behind the times -- their cheerleaders (American cultural imperialism 1, Local is Lekker 0) were tucked ina distant part of the stadium and given little room to breathe or dance. This is fine for those of us who are not huge fans of cheerleaders, who tend just to get in the way of the game, but it still is not the smartest way to draw attention to them.

The game was entertaining but sloppy. The Sharks were content to play a typical South African style by using superior strentgh and size to out scrummage and run over the opposition. Given a choice to swing the ball out to the wings or pass it in to a centre or one of the inside power guys, they always went inside. The Sharks should have won by 50, but their own sloppy play killed them. In the second half they dominated even more than in the first, but managed to score but one try to give them a comfortable 34-16 victory.

There is much to say about race and rugby and transformation, and I am working on an article in which I am trying to say some of it. It plays a role in the upper levels of rugby, but change has come slowly in a culture that once represented paradigmatic white (and Afrikaner) supremacy. It was good to see that Natal's Man of the Match (The club is still known officially as the Natal Sharks, but in what is evidently a compromise, they represent the KwaZulu-Natal Rugby Union) was African. He scored two tries and played a stunner of a game.

It had been a while since I had seen world class rugby live, and it was my second time seeing the Sharks, though my first at ABSA. My next goal is to see an international test match, and maybe even to be at a World Cup, though the next one takes place next summer, when my guess is that won't be an option in light of the wedding and honeymoon plans.
Now honest and truly when next you hear from me I'll be in England. Cheers!

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