For a team who ended the weekend back on top of the SA conference at a fairly advanced stage and second overall, the Bulls could only lure an attendance of 7 483 to Loftus for Saturday’s Super Rugby clash with the Waratahs.
You didn’t have to be there (television was educative enough, although the cameras spiritedly try to steer clear of vast empty spaces at South African sports grounds generally) to see or imagine just how sparsely-populated the famous Test venue was, considering its capacity of just over 50 000.
Look, we already know that declining gates, competition-wide, are a “thing”.
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SANZAAR are at least partly responsible, due to the indecent amount of tinkering - including sometimes necessary undoing of damage, dragging the situation back to square one - that has occurred structurally over the last few years.
Super Rugby, once so magical when it was the three-nation, simple-to-follow Super 12, has expanded a great deal (up to an unwieldy 18 teams for a while) and is intended to contract again after next season as one, salvation-geared initiative.
It is a change that cannot come quickly enough: ditto the dismantling of the cumbersome conference-based system, which frankly should have come even more urgently - in 2020, if at all possible? - considering the acute strain it puts on the tournament’s legitimacy and the associated challenge to ease of understanding in log(s) perusal for the average rugby enthusiast.
Many of the Pretoria public, for example, clearly aren’t hoodwinked by the Bulls’ artificial current status of second only to the Crusaders on the full table; they sport as many as eight points fewer than the forcibly fourth-placed Hurricanes.
But it is still almost too bad to be true to reflect on that ultra-skimpy crowd figure from Saturday, a sunny day at Loftus and with kick-off set down for that most agreeable, old-fashioned “Currie Cup slot” of just after 15:00.
Another relative rarity, that should have helped a little at the turnstiles, was that it wasn’t even part of the usual Saturday afternoon/evening back-to-back-matches phenomenon on SA soil, which can be at least one good reason for fans to prefer the comfort of the telly in their own living rooms: this was a standalone, as the Sharks had played in Christchurch on Friday, the Stormers had a much later kick-off in distant Buenos Aires and Highveld neighbours the Lions were on a bye.
There is a reasonable enough sense of mini-renaissance at Loftus, at least as it regards the team itself, given that the three-time former champions have won more matches than they have lost so far in a truly topsy-turvy season all round, boast some vibrant new talent in both pack and backline alike and are also bolstered in no small measure this year by gnarly, well-travelled warriors like Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Brits.
In a specifically domestic context, the bleak economic picture, with associated cash challenges to hard-pressed consumers and their families, clearly has a meaningful impact on coaxing bums to stadium seats.
But you can’t blame that alone, and the bean counters at Loftus and all the other Super Rugby venues in the country must be deeply concerned about the progressively sinking trend in gate receipts.
What price a solid crowd improvement on Friday night (19:10), when the Bulls entertain the defending champion, star-studded ‘Saders, in what will be, just a little disingenuously, hyped as the “one meets two” scrap?
Don’t get your hopes up too high, as that scheduling isn’t historically popular in Pretoria or elsewhere.
When you go to Wikipedia’s Super Rugby site these days, official gates for matches aren’t presented as routinely as they used to be … and especially (tellingly?) on our shores.
But I was still able to trawl through the archive to do some sort of comparative exercise in Bulls v Waratahs past attendances at Loftus.
Until Saturday, they hadn’t actually met at the ground since 2013, so you have to take into account the exaggerated time gap in a climate where we already know crowds in Super Rugby tourney-wide have been slipping backwards.
But for that last meeting (Bulls 30 Waratahs 19, in round 11 that year), Loftus still lured an officially-listed 21,114 souls, while the prior game there two years earlier - in 2011 when the Bulls again prevailed 23-17 - drew 23,706 as late as round 16.
Even better, in the last year in which the Bulls won the overall title, in 2010, the visit of the men from New South Wales (a rollercoaster 48-38 home triumph) attracted a near-dreamy 30,044.
Now chew, once more, on that sub-7 500 figure from this weekend.
I’m betting you may be thinking, in vintage, resigned South African fashion “ja, nee” …