The epic semi-final clash between Western Province and the Blue Bulls was a welcome departure from the one-sided contests witnessed in the 2018 Currie Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
One only needed to look to the stands on Saturday to see why the Currie Cup is in trouble. The Sharks hosted the Golden Lions in front of a largely empty Kings Park. Fewer than 19,000 people were at Newlands for the north-south derby.
These are the facts that should concern SA Rugby as it looks to retain South Africa’s premier domestic tournament in some shape or form. Few fans are willing to attend a second-tier competition that features so few of the country’s elite players.
We’ve come to accept that the top Springboks – who are resting in the period between the Rugby Championship and the end-of-year tour – won’t compete in the domestic tournament. In recent years, we’ve seen more and more Super Rugby stars, who are considered surplus to national requirements, heading to Japan for a few months with the aim of supplementing their income. The result is a watered down Currie Cup that has little relevance in the grand scheme of things.
This season, we saw one team dominating all their opponents across the league phase. WP beat every side by 22 points or more. While Province deserve praise after such performances, one has to ask whether such scorelines are good for a tournament that sells itself as a strength-versus-strength product.
And yet the Currie Cup playoffs always seem to serve up delicious contests that contrast the gruel dished out during the league phase. Indeed, if my Twitter timeline is anything to go by, many tend to forget how bad the tournament was in the league phase after witnessing the intense and skilful displays in the semi-finals and final. A tournament that was ‘dead’ only a few weeks ago is suddenly ‘alive and well’.
In the buildup to the recent semi-final at Newlands, much was said about the 2009 playoff between WP and the Bulls at the same venue. Those were the days when the Boks returned to domestic duty in the playoffs.
Schalk Burger cut Fourie du Preez in half with a tackle that highlighted the importance of the occasion. Bok flyhalf Morné Steyn – who was in flawless kicking form that season – nailed a last-gasp penalty to give the Bulls an unlikely win. It was the stuff of South African sporting dreams, regardless of your provincial allegiance.
There were fewer Boks on show this past Saturday, but there was the same sense of urgency. The Currie Cup tournament as a whole may have become irrelevant, but the playoffs and the prospect of lifting that storied trophy still stir the blood of rugby-mad South Africans.
The Bulls must be commended for the part that they played in that contest. Nobody will forget that 2009 semi-final at Newlands. In the same vein, nobody will forget the 100-minute epic between John Dobson’s much-fancied WP and Pote Human’s underdog Bulls.
Ask those who were at the game if it mattered, or indeed if the Currie Cup still matters in some shape or form. Vernon Philander sat in a box adjacent to the press area at Newlands on Saturday. I noticed that the Proteas bowler didn’t spend the game on the edge of his seat. He spent the bulk of the contest leaping out of it in excitement.
The drama playing out on the field demanded such a reaction in the stands. Ask Philander if this derby, or if this tournament, doesn’t matter.
Bear in mind, though, that Philander watched the game in a stadium that was 30,000 below capacity. Remember that there was little interest in the domestic tournament during the Rugby Championship and teams like Province were racking up 50-plus points every week. Few, if any, were taking the Currie Cup seriously.
We’ll ride to the top of the rollercoaster next Saturday when WP host the Sharks. We’ll see more people at Newlands for the final – possibly even a sellout – because of the drama that played out in the semi-finals and the simple fact that the Currie Cup trophy is on the line.
What about next year, though, when the stands remain largely empty and one or two sides dominate all others to a worrying degree? People will have cause to say the Currie Cup is dead during the league phase. Come the playoffs, however, the tournament may spark to life once more.
Super Rugby has faced similar problems in recent years, and it wasn’t surprising to see the tournament reduced from 18 to 15 teams this past season. People want to see more games that matter, especially in the league phase of a tournament. One-sided contests are a threat to such competitions, and the sport itself.
Let’s celebrate the contests that played out at Kings Park and Newlands in the recent Currie Cup semi-finals. Let’s give the coming decider at Newlands due attention. Let’s not kid ourselves, however, that the tournament as a whole has been a success.
Photo: Chris Ricco/BackpagePix