Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Some pluses in lean Currie Cup
Cape Town – If evidence from the first round is anything to go by, this year’s Absa Currie Cup may carry some inadvertent blessings despite the all too obvious “watering down” of the domestic competition.
Early indications are that fewer mismatches will take place in this year of widespread Springbok absenteeism from it, plus the formidable counter-attraction for domestic rugby fans of the World Cup.
To use the expression “improved strength versus strength” would be inappropriate, given that the tournament is so obviously weakened by the heavier national demands of 2011 and a still swollen casualty list after the brutal Super Rugby campaign.
Indeed, I sometimes got the feeling over the past weekend that the Currie Cup this year will not be much higher in standard than a Vodacom Cup on mild steroids, if you like.
But it is not all gloom in a competition that has a funny old knack of defying doomsayers anyway: there is a fair prospect that only one of the smaller “platteland” unions -- rather than the traditional two among an eight-strong field -- will struggle to be properly competitive.
Although these are fledgling days in the programme, the ever-vulnerable Leopards look as though they will be wooden-spoonists once more – they conceded six tries in crashing 40-12 to a fairly rookie Cheetahs team in Bloemfontein which must be a bad sign.
But the Pumas may well turn this year’s event into something not far off a “seven-horse race”, which would make a nice change: they had some promising spells of supremacy before being squeezed out 31-27 away to the minimally-disrupted Lions, a team many consider could go all the way to a first final appearance since 2007.
The one major weakness of the Currie Cup in recent seasons has been the lamentable showing, for the most part, of the bottom two sides.
Last year the Leopards lost all 14 round-robin matches and secured a flimsy five points – a vast 18 adrift of the Pumas who, in turn, ended 14 points shy of sixth-placed finishers Griquas despite at least winning four fixtures.
In 2009 it was even more embarrassing, with “major union” the Lions ending sixth on 37 points, and a massive divide to the seventh-placed Leopards (six points) and relegated Cavaliers (five).
So a by-product of the Currie Cup’s dilution this year may well be at least one fewer easy-beat outfit.
As far as the traditional, Test-union giants are concerned, the Bok no-shows for generous chunks of the itinerary – perhaps even its entirety -- will have the effect of fast-tracking some bright young things who might otherwise have stayed in relative obscurity for the moment.
Some names that come to mind compellingly after round one include the Sharks’ constructive, gap-scenting 21-year-old scrumhalf Ross Cronje and a pair of exciting blindside flanks in Western Province’s Siya Kolisi and another Durban-based customer in Marcell Coetzee.
And although only 11 000 people went through the turnstiles at the traditional crowd magnet of Newlands -- on another unseasonally sparkling Cape Town day -- for the opening match of 2010 losing finalists WP against Griquas, Mr Price Kings Park was a tad better-stocked than I believed it would be for the Sharks v Bulls meeting.
Illuminatingly, the attendance seemed better to me, even if only based on television pictures, than for some matches at relatively advanced stages of the Sharks’ push into the Super Rugby finals series.
It may have been a significant little reminder that, warts and all in 2011, some people will always prefer their domestic rugby to a drawn-out Super Rugby campaign.
I have some ongoing fears for the 2011 version that one round of activity won’t be enough to repel but maybe, just maybe, the Currie Cup will turn out OK.
Er, again ...