| Newlands on tenterhooks over nostalgic swansong

Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

This was hardly how it was meant to be.

Grand old Newlands, which first opened in 1890 and hosted its first international a year later, has been left in considerable limbo about when its emotion-laden, first-class swansong occasion will actually be this year due to the coronavirus and its already damaging impact on global sports scheduling.

Heaven forbid, will it now get its fitting finale of some sort at all, ahead of the intended shift of professional rugby to Cape Town Stadium in 2021?

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As things stand, Newlands is earmarked to host its last ever Springbok-level match on July 4: the first of two home Tests against Scotland.

But just how impacted is that now going to be by the indefinite suspension of Super Rugby after only seven ordinary-season rounds?

Sanzaar CEO Andy Marinos has said that completion of this year’s tournament will be unlikely if the halt in activity stretches beyond four or five weeks – something that seems increasingly likely, and with a potential knock-on effect into the mid-year international window.

In the first three weekends of July, the Boks tackle Scotland at both Newlands and then Kings Park (July 11), followed by a once-off Test against Georgia at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium (July 18).

Many countries may well still be in varying stages of ongoing lockdown at that point, probably making more feasible a return to “normality” in major rugby only when the annual Rugby Championship comes around between early August and late September.

The snag there is that Newlands was bypassed for the four-nation event this year, with the home Tests given to Ellis Park (v Argentina, August 8), Loftus (v Australia, September 19) and Mbombela Stadium (v New Zealand, September 26).

Arguably no less appealing to Capetonians than giving the now tatty but tradition-steeped ground an appropriate, sufficiently high-level send-off through the Test against moderate Six Nations customer Scotland, would have been hosting a knockout-phase Super Rugby match or two involving the Stormers.

As it is, remaining ordinary-season obligations at Newlands against the Rebels (March 28), Waratahs (April 4), Sharks (April 18) and Lions (May 23) are severely endangered.

The dreamiest scenario for the long-suffering Stormers faithful under normal circumstances, preceding the pandemic, would have been for the team – having slipped to seventh overall with successive defeats after an earlier 4/4 record – to advance all the way to a beautifully-timed, maiden hosting of the final at the soon-to-disappear venue on June 20.

The franchise have never previously staged the showpiece, the closest being when they were beaten 33-18 there by the Highlanders in a 1999 semi-final (had they won, they would have banked a Newlands final as they had ended normal season higher than eventual champions the Crusaders).

Similarly, the Stormers would have had rights to the 2012 final, but for being pipped 26-19 by the Sharks at the ground in a semi.

Plenty of observers will have been downwardly revising – a bit like wobbling stock markets – their thoughts on the franchise going all the way this year, anyway, given the events of the last two or three weeks.

While Saturday’s defeat to the in-form Sharks in Durban was more understandable, that debilitating, lame 14-33 setback at Newlands against the Blues just ahead of the bye weekend was very costly.

But the Stormers’ shares have plunged even more deeply in another respect: a devastating recent sequence of injuries.

Tipped for prosperity in 2020 on the grounds of having several keynote, World Cup 2019-winning Springboks on their books, those ranks have suddenly thinned to a quite ghastly extent, with longish-term layoffs now affecting all of Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi, Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Herschel Jantjies.

If Super Rugby were to resume more quickly than we anticipate, there is a high risk that the Stormers, shorn of their most critical weaponry, will recede to relative also-rans.

How badly, then, Newlands needs that Scotland Test date on July 4 to take place as a suitably highbrow occasion for farewell purposes.

The only other hope for a rousing finish to pro rugby at the ground might be if this year’s now much-maligned Currie Cup serves as some sort of rise-from-human-adversity rugby occasion … and the blue and white hoops of Western Province prosper in a parallel way.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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