Boks give Cup a sharper edge

2011-10-18 13:10

Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer 

Cape Town – Yes, it does seem cruel that some of the honest journeymen or fast-tracked rookies who have battled through the round-robin phase of this year’s Absa Currie Cup are suddenly deemed surplus to requirements for the all-important knockout phase.

I refer, of course, to the mass infusion – though the process had already begun in some earnest last weekend -- of returning World Cup Springboks to provincial teams, with defending champions the Sharks and last year’s runners-up Western Province the most handsome profiteers ahead of “semis” weekend.

Suddenly the Durban meeting between the Sharks and Cheetahs looks rather more loaded in favour of a home win, with the Free Staters pretty much having to go “status quo” with their selection yet the hosts gleefully beefing their ranks with the likes of Messrs Willem Alberts, JP Pietersen, Tendai Mtawarira and the Du Plessis brothers, Bismarck and Jannie.

In Johannesburg, it is a little more dangerous, I think, to suggest that Province will turn the tables for a Coca-Cola Park pasting only a fortnight back, simply because Schalk Burger, Jean de Villiers and company will give them greater mongrel and nous ... but a much tighter contest is a realistic scenario, all the same.

It is tough on some of the players who did some hard yards for their provinces just to get them to the semi-finals, only for their gesture of “thanks” to be relegation to the bench or even right out of the match-day 22.

Still, you have to ask these sort of honest questions: who would you rather pay top dollar (and in this recessionary climate, too) to see at the business end of the Currie Cup ... Dale Chadwick in the Sharks No 1 jersey or that eternal crowd favourite and rampaging ball-carrier the “Beast”?

And if you are WP fan, surely De Villiers at inside centre – a man who fought more deftly than most to overcome the Wallabies in that controversial RWC quarter-final – gives you a greater sense of comfort and pleasure than, say, the still-in-training Marcel Brache?

Various youngsters have made useful, perhaps even more advanced strides in first-class rugby than they may have imagined a few months ago; the kind that will stand them in good stead for further blossoming next season.

But after a season predictably marked by reduced gates at most Currie Cup venues because of the absence of well over two dozen of the country’s best players to international requirements in a World Cup year, any opportunity to inject them at the finish was always going to be grabbed with eager hands.

The sponsors clearly relish their presence, ditto the television honchos. And expect the public to show their approval by turning out in more swollen numbers now for the last three matches of the competition.

Just knowing that Cape cult figure Schalk Burger was likely to feature in the second half off the bench against the Pumas last weekend must have gone a long way to explaining why some 15 000 people reportedly went through the turnstiles for that less-than-sexy fixture, instead of a likelier four-figure gate, I imagine, had big Bok names been absent once more.

Indeed, in the shortish time Burger was allowed off the leash like a grateful dog in a park, he only offered up a broad reminder of how passionately the frontline Springboks always wish to tear into provincial combat – remember that the careful “management” process in 2011 hardly means we are going to see tired old troopers simply go through the motions at season’s end.

A sports-minded colleague from News24 reminded me this week, too, that there is a precedent from as far back as 30 years ago for returning Boks crashing the Currie Cup final party, as it were.

In 1981, the Boks returned from their eventful, old-style (read: long!) tour of New Zealand, and then a stopover in the United States, to play an influential role in the outcome of the Cup that year.

Northern Transvaal ruffled feathers – and those were overwhelmingly amateur days when TV ratings and the like weren’t quite so obsessively monitored – by suddenly, unapologetically fielding a glittering array of Boks in the Loftus final against Free State, greatly tilting the balance before the teams even took to the pitch after a domestic season like this one, stripped of the country’s most stellar names.

Into the starting fray stormed players like Naas Botha, Johan Heunis, Burger Geldenhuys, Louis Moolman and Ockie Oosthuizen, with the hapless visitors comfortably elbowed out 23-6 after a spirited enough first 30 minutes or so.

There was a morality-based hullabaloo ahead of that final, yet it has dimmed to near-inconsequential status with the passage of time.

All that matters is the reflection in the history books that the Blue Bulls made it a fifth year on the trot of Currie Cup successes, albeit that 1979 was the kiss-your-sister share of the spoils with Morne du Plessis’s WP side.

Who wins in 2011 is all that will be remembered, ultimately, once again ...