PRETORIA, May 20 (Reuters) - Rugby union, chosen sport of the Afrikaners, enters the black township of Soweto where much of the anti-apartheid battle was fought when the Bulls meet the Crusaders in their Super 14 semi-final on Saturday.
The decision to play at Orlando Stadium while the Bulls’ stadium in Pretoria is being prepared for next month’s soccer World Cup has taken politicians and leading sports figures by surprise.
Bulls captain Victor Matfield, a prime mover behind the decision, told Reuters this week that the Orlando stadium was ideal, despite a recent poll that suggested that a narrow majority of their mainly white fans could stay away.
“We know Loftus Versfeld (the Bulls’ Pretoria stadium) very well, obviously, but it will be great to play at Orlando,” he said.
“It’s a great stadium, a great pitch and it will still feel like home with all our people there, it is still at altitude and it will be like a little Loftus.
“And it will be great for the country for us to take rugby to Soweto and it’s another step in the right direction if we want to spread the game to all corners.”
Matfield was talking after the Bulls had a training session at the impressive modern stadium that looms over the historic suburb that was home to both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
An online poll run last week by SuperSport, the host broadcaster of Super 14 rugby in South Africa, asked Bulls’ fans whether they would go to Orlando Stadium to watch the Bulls attempt to defend their title if they obtained tickets.
Out of 6,564 respondents, 49 percent said they would be there, 41 percent said they would watch on television and 10 percent were unsure and required more information.
Tickets made available to the general public on Monday were sold out within hours, although some Loftus season-ticket holders have apparently not taken up their ticket options.
Although a survey showed 45 percent of the Bulls’ support was black, Loftus Versfeld is invariably predominantly filled by white Afrikaners and racial incidents still occur occasionally.
Conversely, Soweto has an almost-exclusively black population and some whites are afraid to set foot in the township.
Gerhard Greeff from Roodepoort, a massive, shaven-headed man sporting a blue helmet with large bulls horns attached, said he was concerned about his safety at the Orlando Stadium.
“Security is my worry, there are so many ‘boere’ (Afrikaans farmers),” he told Reuters after the Bulls last match at Loftus.
“It won’t be the same as Loftus, they must do something, maybe some test runs.”
Eddie Gower, a tall, bearded man who was carrying eight empty beer cups, said: “If I’ve got a ticket I will definitely go. It will be good, why not? It will be something different.”
A handful of black supporters interviewed at Loftus were all unwilling to be quoted.
Hugo Kemp, the Loftus stadium manager who is also handling security arrangements at Orlando on Saturday, told Reuters on Wednesday he did not expect any safety issues.
“I honestly don’t think there’ll be any security problems. There are a lot of misperceptions about Soweto, but in any case, all the spectators are being bussed in and inside the stadium is a secure venue.
“In terms of security guards and police involvement, it will be no different to what we do for a match at Loftus.”
For Soweto residents, the match provides a rare opportunity to see top-class rugby on their doorstep, but a prime opportunity to involve the struggling Soweto Rugby Club seems to have been passed by.
“I doubt there’ll be any benefit to the club and so far there has just been talk, no proper engagement with us,” Soweto Rugby Club secretary Zola Ntlokona told Reuters.
“This semi-final could be played in Japan, it doesn’t symbolise anything to us, we are not Blue Bulls supporters,”
Bulls chief executive Barend van Graan told Reuters that he will “sit down with the local members of rugby clubs” to discuss some sort of benefit for them.
Less than three years ago, Soweto was up in arms when SARU initially left them off the list of venues for a World Cup trophy tour after the Springboks’ triumph in France in 2007.
Soweto was hastily made a parade venue after government ripped into Saru, but the oversight cost them black support.
Editing by Jon Bramley and John Mehaffey; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org