By Julienne du Toit
Pictures by Chris Marais[dropcap]A[/dropcap] grand festival of rugby – for young and old, boys and girls – took place in Cradock at the end of March as part of the town’s bicentenary celebrations.
The culmination was a Vodacom Cup match between the EP Kings and the Cheetahs, but the whole day was special, in unexpected ways. It started at 8am, with the little ‘pienkvoete’ – the barefoot primary school teams: Michausdal Primary, Cradock Primary, and Carinus Primary.
After that came the combined JA Calata and Matthew Goniwe High Schools against Michausdal High Under 19s – both sides fielding an intense, lean bunch of guys who played with increasing confidence as their game went on.
There was also a session of Women’s Sevens Rugby, which attracted a fair amount of interest. (Overheard comment: “Nee, kom, ons wil die Cherries sien speel” – “No, come along, we want to watch the chicks play.”)
Then came one of the day’s most anticipated matches: Cradock High School’s first team vs DF Malherbe from Port Elizabeth.
Although DF Malherbe put up a good game (and arrived with a squadron of attractive and enthusiastic cheerleaders) it ended in a satisfying victory for CHS, with several great tries that had the spectators on their feet.
The local-team Match of the Day was the Cradock Barbarians against the Middelburg Harlequins. The Barbarians team was a side cobbled together from Cradock’s Evergreens, Karoo Springboks and Veritas, the first time the three teams had ever collaborated in such a way. Everyone was keen to see how the amalgam worked.
Although the Harlequins were a competent squad, the Barbarians proved the better team on the day, winning 24-14. The match featured some lively and cheerfully biased commentating from Cradock local, Lionel Stevens.
Before the main match of the day, dozens of veteran North Eastern Cape players, many of whom had played here, including former Springbok Captain Hannes Marais, Christo Ferreira and Eben Jansen slowly made their way around Cradock Sportsground’s tartan track to applause from the crowd. The legendary Springbok Chester Williams had earlier made a VIP guest appearance.
Meanwhile as the stands filled to near-capacity, the Xhosa Warriors dance group helped rev up the atmosphere, after which the Mayors of the Chris Hani District Municipality Mxolisi Koyo and Inxuba Yethemba Local Municipality Nyameka Goniwe were introduced to both teams and the ground staff.
Everyone stood for the national anthem, sung by the Inxuba Yethemba choir. By the time they finished, the entire stadium was singing along, ending enthusiastically several beats ahead of the official singers.
It was a special moment for EP Kings captain Paul Schoeman who is from Cradock, and who was educated at Marlow Agricultural High School. His family are still farming in the district. During the week, the EP Kings and the Cheetahs had held rugby clinics for school teams.
“As they received passes from the Cheetahs and Kings, you could immediately see the kids imagining themselves as Springboks,” said one observer.
The EP Kings stayed at the Victoria Manor and Tuishuise and the Cheetahs at Vusubuntu. Every single guesthouse in Cradock was full for several days, thanks to supporters who came from all over the Eastern Cape. Various Cradock eateries took turns to feed the voracious rugby players.
The Cheetahs (who had vocal and enthusiastic fans in the stadium) won the match 31 – 3.
Like the teams that had played during the day with such easy camaraderie, the crowd was demographically mixed and united in a love for good rugby.
There is word that this might not be the last event like this played in Cradock. Vodacom Cup organisers were impressed with the facilities and the town’s spirit. This could become an annual event.
“That would be so good for our town,” smiled Cradock-born mayor, Councillor Goniwe, a keen rugby fan herself.