There’s a possibility that Wednesday Night Lights may shine brighter than expected in 2022, writes ZELIM NEL.
Not too long ago, the Currie Cup was rugby’s most revered domestic championship. Diluted by the addition of Super Rugby franchises and the subtraction of Springboks from the competition, the Currie Cup has been in decline for decades.
But even when the Test players only returned for the knockout rounds, the biggest games continued to draw an audience from both sides of the rivalry and a rabid crowd unrivalled abroad.
Consider that the 2019 final between the Cheetahs and Lions pulled almost 40,000 spectators to Free State Stadium – despite neither team featuring a single player required to make a business trip to Japan two weeks later for South Africa’s Rugby World Cup opener against the All Blacks.
Only slightly less of a secret than the launch codes in the nuclear briefcase at the White House, the Currie Cup TV numbers must be lower than Joe Biden’s current cognitive test scores.
There are, however, three reasons to think that’s going to change in 2022.
First up, the Currie Cup will run concurrently with the Vodacom United Rugby Championship, which has replaced Super Rugby as South Africa’s premier regional comp.
Initially, this sounded like a death knell to the domestic championship, but that was before Munster and Connacht hammered the Stormers and Bulls in Ireland late last year.
As underlined by South Africa turning into a rugby ghost town during Allister Coetzee’s lacklustre reign as Bok coach, winning is what draws a crowd and the Currie Cup may well offer a reprieve while the SA teams find their feet in Europe.
The second reason is related to the first. While Western Province and Free State no longer have a primetime rugby slot on the calendar – the Currie Cup final is set for 25 June, one week after the inaugural URC champion is crowned – the decision-makers have made cunning plans to carve out a niche for those teams in the form of midweek games.
Five rounds of the domestic comp will take place on a Wednesday in a schedule that has teams playing two matches in the space of four days before a 10-day break.
This not only disrupts the monotony of a Saturday-to-Saturday news cycle but also presents supporters with an opportunity to scratch around in the cooler box on hump day.
The Currie Cup will have no competition for rugby eyes on a Wednesday night and that’s a big win, but perhaps the biggest trump card up the Currie Cup’s proverbial sleeve is the absence of blue-chip players.
We’re used to watching the Sharks XV trot on without their Boks, but they’ve more often than not gone up against Griquas and the Pumas with key veterans from their Super Rugby campaign.
In 2022, those troops will be fighting on the European front and – in addition to creating a bit more parity between ‘the big unions’ and the wee fellas – this will reduce the gap between the best and worst player in the Currie Cup.
Super Rugby AU, the all-Australian survivor of Super Rugby, was surprisingly palatable. The Australian franchises had served as dartboards for Super Rugby’s sharpest teams but when the Brumbies, Force, Rebels, Reds and Waratahs were ring-fenced, the quality of the games was surprisingly appetising.
Equal measures of mediocrity were the reason for this. Without more powerful teams to expose their shortcomings, the Aussies were able to produce a tug of war that lasted longer than 15 minutes, and viewers were unable to discern the drop in quality because the measuring stick was tucked away in New Zealand.
The same could prove to be the case in the Currie Cup where every team is stocked primarily with young, raw talent, or veterans not deemed good enough for URC duty.
If the matches are close and the results unpredictable, the Currie Cup may well draw a crowd that has grown weary of watching their favourite URC teams penalised to death in the Irish sleet.