Currie Cup still has a kick
Cape Town - The Currie Cup is like the boxer who takes a terrible pounding but, fuelled by astonishing levels of pride, simply refuses to crash to the canvas.
Why, we may have seen just enough quality in the first round of the compressed, increasingly marginalised 2012 competition to suggest that the grand old dame of the domestic landscape doesn’t even require putting out of her misery.
They have fiddled with its format many times before, of course, but with Super Rugby rudely monopolising the southern hemisphere rugby calendar to unprecedented levels this year, plenty of observers could have been forgiven for suggesting that our once premier event outside of Tests was now threatened to the point of near-extinction.
Based on evidence from the first weekend, it would be premature to say that reports of the Currie Cup’s death are greatly exaggerated - notably poor gates at all three fixtures will ring certain alarm bells - but the situation also isn’t quite as critical, perhaps, as pessimists assume.
It was always likely that the opening few weeks, coming so soon after a uniquely long-lasting Super Rugby season, a volley of June Test matches and with many hard-pressed consumers also splashing out hefty amounts for tickets to the imminent, maiden Castle Rugby Championship, would not have the turnstiles working overtime.
Also to consider is that some decent provincial players who are not in the Springbok camp at present are still nursing bumps from Super Rugby and will enhance the Currie Cup fairly shortly.
The late-winter weather nationwide has been pretty frigid, which hardly helps the quest to drag fans from the comfort of their television rooms - the Mother City, for instance, experienced one of its wildest days of the entire year on Saturday in the lead-up to and then during the headline game featuring two franchises (Western Province and the Sharks) who had locked horns only two weeks earlier in a Super Rugby semi-final with greatly superior personnel on paper.
But to the credit of the latest, mostly humbler combatants, swathes of empty seats don’t automatically translate into sub-standard fare and the brave souls who did turn out saw a fluid and exciting game, despite the slippery conditions, which the Sharks sneaked 25-23.
With only the top six provincial unions in the country now taking part, one plus is that there are unlikely to be many mismatches this year, and away wins will often be like gold, so Jean Deysel and company will be chuffed to have edged a battle where they played second fiddle territorially and at the set-piece for long passages.
This was far from the pick-me-up the long-suffering Newlands public would have wanted after the disappointment of topping the SA Super Rugby conference but falling at a late hurdle once again - but they would also have banked a morsel of satisfaction that here, Province played with more verve at times than had been witnessed in a host of tedious home matches in the broader SANZAR competition this year.
They lost this one more because of the Sharks’ praiseworthy opportunism (and in one case a really sparkling counter-attack) than because of any special bluntness to their own attacking department.
Meanwhile in the earlier Saturday game, it was perhaps significant that defending champions the Lions, fielding a side probably the least altered at this stage from its Super Rugby one, impressively saw off the Cheetahs 43-20 at Coca-Cola Park to signal their retention aspirations with a bonus point into the bargain.
There will already be a nice little edge to things, whether the Durban public pitch up in good numbers or not, when the Sharks host the Lions in the keynote match next weekend, minutes after the Boks have played Argentina at Newlands in their first match of the new four-nation competition.
It is a mini repeat of last season’s Currie Cup final, and also comes only a few weeks after the Lions upset the eventual losing Super Rugby finalists in a conference clash in Johannesburg.
On Friday night, the Cheetahs will be under some pressure to get into winning mode when the Blue Bulls visit Bloemfontein on the back of a satisfactory first-up victory over Griquas at Loftus.
They were held to a two-tries-all situation by the gritty men from Kimberley, who were right in it at the hour mark with the score only 22-20 in the Bulls’ favour, but a positive aspect for the Pretoria outfit was the way they clinically shut out the game in the final quarter.
Whatever cynics may say, the Currie Cup will continue to be, at least for the time being, a competition commanding attention from true connoisseurs of the game in South Africa - as evidenced, for instance, by inspiring tries this weekend from two Baby
Boks finding their feet at first-class level, Raymond Rhule of the Cheetahs and the Sharks’ Paul Jordaan.
Next weekend’s fixtures:
Friday: Cheetahs v Blue Bulls, Bloemfontein 19:10. Saturday: Griquas v Western Province, Kimberley 14:30; Sharks v Lions, Durban 19:15.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing