The 2022 Currie Cup final being decided by the country’s smaller unions is a fairytale opportunity for hardworking local players with title aspirations, writes DEVIN HERMANUS.
A first-ever meeting between Griquas and the Pumas in a premier competition decider will be another helping for supporters still digesting an incredible feast of South African dominance in the inaugural Vodacom United Rugby Championship, and which culminated in the crowning of the Stormers as champions.
Joining an expanded PRO14 to form the sparkling new URC, the SA teams outplayed those from the northern hemisphere, with the Stormers, Vodacom Bulls and Sharks not only progressing to the playoffs but also securing European Champions Cup rugby for next season.
With the Lions and Free State Cheetahs also set to compete in the Challenge Cup, all SA eyes are turned north ahead of what will be uncharted waters next season.
Competing in the 2021-22 URC campaign required all hands on deck at the bigger unions and Western Province, the Sharks and Lions failing to qualify for the Currie Cup playoffs warned that player depth in SA is an issue.
Bulls coach Gert Smal complained that the Bulls’ back-to-back title defence was heavily affected this season by constant squad disruptions due to players “coming in and out” while competing in the Currie Cup and URC.
But, a new Currie Cup champion will be crowned in Kimberley on Saturday after a weekend of dramatic semi-final action, where Griquas stunned holders Bulls in Pretoria, while the Pumas staged a brilliant late rally to shock the Cheetahs in a pulsating match in Bloemfontein. As it was, the Pumas were contesting their first semi-final in the competition in 52 years.
It’s a rags-to-riches matchup no one would have predicted, with the Cheetahs and Bulls first and second on the log with home semi-finals to follow.
On Friday night, Pieter Bergh’s men became the first from Griquas to reach the final since 1970 when flyhalf George Whitehead scored a try and kicked 13 points to beat the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld. Griquas scored 24 points in the second half as the visitors shocked the defending champions 30-19.
Smal said SA rugby bosses must consider shelving the “devalued” Currie Cup after Griquas romped to victory at Loftus.
Speaking after the Pumas stunned the Cheetahs to progress to the first final in their history, coach Jimmy Stonehouse said Smal’s criticism of the tournament was unjustified.
Stonehouse also highlighted that while the Bulls fielded a young team, it was likely to have a higher overall wage bill than the match-day 23 fielded by Griquas.
While criticising a watered down Currie Cup, Smal glossed over the fact that the Pumas and Griquas held their own – and on occasion won – against the Bulls, Sharks and Lions lineups bolstered by URC reinforcements.
Rugby’s oldest competition also remains a platform for unknown talent to make a name for themselves, while seasoned campaigners can stake a claim for top-union recruitment. Without the Currie Cup to play in, many of those professionals could struggle to earn a living.
For Pumas and Griquas players running out on Saturday in Kimberley, it’s a rare but hard-fought opportunity to compete for silverware, and reminds pundits and the public that SA’s stars don’t only shine in the URC.