Covid-19-enforced disruptions have seriously undermined the latter stages of Super Rugby Unlocked, and the knock-on effect for the Currie Cup is cause for concern, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
After all the work that was put in to launch South Africa’s new domestic competition, and considering the strict safety protocols that are in place, it’s such a pity that the Unlocked competition will end with more of a whimper than a flourish.
Following the cancellation of the clash between the Stormers and Sharks, it’s official that the Vodacom Bulls will be crowned champions.
On the basis of the action we’ve seen so far, the Bulls have looked to be the best team on show, but you can rest assured that Jake White’s charges will hardly be jumping for joy at the manner in which they will claim the trophy.
Slowly but surely, as the competition has gone on, it’s looked as if teams have been starting to find their stride, with the Stormers rising to second place in the log standings, while the Sharks have produced a couple of gutsy wins.
Just two log points separated these three teams heading into this weekend’s final round of action, but the integrity of the tournament outcome has again been rocked by this third confirmation of a cancelled clash.
The warning signs first started flashing when the scheduled third-round battle between the Lions and Cheetahs couldn’t go ahead.
For a while, there were whispers that the game could be rescheduled, and the Lions were determined to make it happen, but ultimately the decision was passed down to confirm that points would be shared after a draw was declared.
As fate would have it, the Lions then had a second match impacted by Covid-19 protocols after last Saturday’s clash with the Pumas was called off due to safety precautions.
As the Lions are set to have a bye this weekend, their season so far has had just four matches go ahead – two away and two at home.
The Lions are set to collect two more log points from the cancelled Pumas match, while the Stormers and Sharks will also have to make do with a share of the spoils after the latest disruptions.
Bear in mind that after this weekend’s games, the seven teams switch to the Currie Cup, with points set to be carried over from one competition to another.
But there will now be massive doubts about whether the Sharks are able to host the Pumas next Friday, with both teams still currently going through the required protocols to curb Covid-19 and meet the safety requirements once again.
As a precaution, the Sharks players are currently back to training as per level four of lockdown, when they exercised in isolation at home.
‘We stringently follow the protocols set out by Saru and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), and in line with that protocols this decision was best for everyone concerned,’ the Sharks said in a statement after receiving news of the Stormers match cancellation.
‘Safety remains our number one priority and those that have tested positive in the team are isolating and will be monitored by our team doctor. The Sharks remain committed to fielding a competitive team for the start of the Currie Cup next week.’
Yet, the three Covid-19 strikes have once again exposed the fragility of the current competition climate, and also cast a shadow over the Currie Cup as the second round of the local season looks to begin on an uneven playing ground.
The Lions have a right to feel most aggrieved, but will have little option but to battle on manfully as they look to rebound from a stop-start season to date.
It’s also been no surprise to see a stern warning handed down from SA Rugby to highlight the importance of strict Covid-19 compliance measures as a number of asterixes related to match cancellations and shared points will need to be added to the footnote of the first Super Rugby Unlocked season.
SA Rugby understandably opted against the option of playing out the local competition in a single bio-bubble location – which would have had massive implications for player well-being – but there will be great fears that the Currie Cup could be next to endure further disruptions.
So much effort and admin was required to get the go-ahead for rugby’s reboot in South Africa, but if the continued competition is to be played on an uneven playing field, this will leave sponsors, supporters and stakeholders with an unavoidable sense of growing frustration.