Currie Cup still has role to play

The Currie Cup remains special despite becoming a feeder tournament for Super Rugby, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.

The Lions are my favourites to win this season’s Currie Cup. If they don’t then I’d be backing Western Province.

I wrote this a few days before the season’s Currie Cup opener. I based it on a hunch and on no form whatsoever. Currie Cup rugby was not merely an extension of Super Rugby, just as Test rugby is no extension of Super Rugby.

I picked the Lions on the strength of their squad. I did factor in that the province were not weakened through multiple national call-ups and that the Currie Cup side had a very familiar look to the lineup that finished so strongly in Super Rugby.

Western Province, the Bulls, the Sharks and the Cheetahs combined to make up the core of the Springbok squad and many of these province’s best players won’t be seen in this season’s Currie Cup. It was a Saru decision to ensure the current contracted Springboks' focus is next season’s Super Rugby and the Springboks' 2014 preparation for the 2015 Rugby Championship and the forthcoming World Cup.

Saru qualified that those Springboks with a national contract, and currently in the Bok squad, would not be released to their provinces, even when there are no Test commitments.

It was a decision that split opinion, but for me it was the logical decision because the Currie Cup is no longer the premier non-Test rugby competition in South Africa.

South African rugby comprises Test rugby, Super Rugby and then the Currie Cup in its pecking order. Super Rugby is the feeder to the Springboks and the Currie Cup acts as a feeder to Super Rugby and also gives players outside of the nationally contracted squad an opportunity to impress the national coach prior to the year-end Test matches.

The Currie Cup still has massive value to the wealth and health of South African rugby, but its value can only be fully appreciated when there is an acceptance that times have changed and that the evolving demands of the professional game encouraged recognition of this change.

Saru couldn’t continue to sell the Currie Cup as the tournament South Africa’s best players wanted to win. They couldn’t continue to add to the illusion that the Currie Cup still held the appeal of being the world’s toughest domestic tournament. Saru, by excluding the country’s best 20-25 players, made the statement that it was the Springboks (first and foremost), then Super Rugby and only then, the Currie Cup.

Saru got it right and in doing so the Currie Cup will get it right once again in providing the public with a spectacle that won’t always reflect the quality of Super Rugby but won’t lack spectator appeal, excitement and some fine rugby.

The expansion of the Currie Cup to strength-versus-strength top eight that includes every major province was also more a solution than a problem.

The EP Kings will improve because of the guarantee of Currie Cup Premier Division rugby and the regional Southern Kings in Super Rugby from 2016 onwards. And the Pumas, like Griquas have done for several years, will always be difficult to beat at home.

The Currie Cup, with its role as a tournament in the South African landscape accepted as more feeder than final destination, still has a lure for players. It's a springboard to something bigger and that alone makes it something special in the South African rugby context.

But it's not Super Rugby. The two are very different tournaments with different tournament structures and different travelling demands. Super Rugby also features the very best professional players in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

The Currie Cup can’t make such claims but it has a special place in the hearts of the South African rugby public; it’s a provincial rivalry that meant everything in the absence of international rugby during South African rugby’s sporting isolation. But those days are over and the Springboks are now the representation of national excellence; not who has provincial bragging rights.

It is the way of the normal sporting world. It is the way it should always be.

The Rugby Championship starts this weekend and it’s going to be intense. I have New Zealand as favourites to win the competition but I also have South Africa and Australia to beat them at least once.

The Currie Cup and Rugby Championship will run concurrently, which makes for a feast of rugby but should never make for even one comparison.

Enjoy the Currie Cup for its role within the South African rugby landscape but don’t make the mistake of ever again thinking it represents the complete picture of this landscape.

Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images