Currie Cup

Lions hot tip in threadbare cup

2015-08-07 06:40
Johan Ackermann (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Every year, it seems, the grand old dame that is the Currie Cup looks earmarked to be shovelled closer toward a sad “grave”.

Thank goodness, then, that its near-bizarre capacity to defy the odds is a habit of contrasting, swelling regularity.

The all-domestic competition has been increasingly the poorer cousin of Super Rugby, which some might lament encroaches on its former prime-time terrain like a rising damp.

But a similarly serious challenge nowadays comes courtesy of the expanding exodus – hardly helped by a tottering rand – of South African professional players to widely-scattered northern hemisphere clubs.

A glance at the line-ups our eight Cup provinces are putting out for the first round of the 2015 competition this weekend serves slightly unpleasant notice that a “sloppy seconds” phenomenon is taking shape.

If that sounds an overly bleak observation, let it be said that it’s not all bad: some proven quality does remain, and in certain instances bright-spark players from under-21 ranks and thereabouts may find themselves fast-tracked to senior provincial rugby with pleasing results – our country still doesn’t come up terribly short in manufacture of fresh-faced talent.

Also to consider is the pleasingly stubborn devotion the public has – not always reflected in gates, but sometimes more apparent in TV numbers – for the Currie Cup, with its rich heritage still a healthy enough lure.

The better and almost inevitably bigger unions all possess sprinklings of names with genuine appeal in their match-day squads, but especially when you glance at benches you notice that coaches are having to scrape barrels to a fairly significant degree.

In short, the Currie Cup is beginning to feature players who simply would not have got a look-in at this level five or 10 years ago.

Yet for the time being, maybe we should simply be grateful that it remains roughly in its most orthodox scheduling window, as suggestions that it shift to a slot parallel to Super Rugby in the future seem horribly unpalatable – perhaps even a move to finally strip the Currie Cup of all its remaining dignity and gravitas.

It is not terribly easy yet to confidently predict who will boss the 2015 event, given that only when certain of the enlarged Springbok squad members are released into it (rather than put on a plane to the World Cup) will we really know which team has the best arsenal for a title assault.

Just in terms of continuity from an impressive Super Rugby campaign, the Golden Lions under wily, passionate coach Johan Ackermann arguably look likeliest trophy-winners from this far out.

When last year’s runners-up open their account away to the fragile EP Kings on Saturday, they will be doing so with a squad containing at least a dozen of the personnel who were also part of the mix for their last outing at Super Rugby level – the gutsy 19-19 draw with the conference-champion Stormers at Newlands.

It certainly suggests they will be thereabouts in the Currie Cup again this year, and they do have the advantage of playing their lone pre-knockout game against cup holders Western Province in Johannesburg, in what might be an important second-last round of league play.

As for Province, the big point of interest will be how new coach John Dobson, following in the wake of once solidly-entrenched Allister Coetzee, takes to his task.

They have surrendered plenty of blue-chip players to the Bok cause, but there is an ambitious, winning trend developing anew at Newlands these days and the “Streeptruie” ought to be right up there as well.

It is entirely possible that the remaining two teams who made up the last four in 2014, the Blue Bulls and Sharks, will again make the semis cut.

As with Dobson down south, it will be fascinating to monitor the way novice Nollis Marais rebuilds the Bulls: after a broad era of notable success under Frans Ludeke, they were playing a brand of rugby at Loftus that was stuck in a disappointing time warp as his tenure neared its conclusion.

There has been a fresh exodus of players from the Pretoria fold, but their Currie Cup side looks like containing a fairly promising blend of youth and experience.

That said, it may be too early to suggest the remodelling under Marais will bear fruit so rapidly as to snatch back the domestic spoils for the first time since 2009.

Especially if the Cheetahs manage to knock over the Bulls in their first assignment in Bloemfontein on Saturday, they may press spiritedly for the semis as well.

But one thing seems a bit more certain: with even the more cash-flush unions battling for proper playing depth in this year’s tournament, what chance will minnows like the Kings, Pumas and Griquas have?

Expect this trio to be also-rans once more, I’d think ...

First-round fixtures (home teams first):

Friday: Griquas v WP, 15:30; Pumas v Sharks, 18:00. Saturday: Cheetahs v Blue Bulls, 14:15; EP Kings v Golden Lions, 14:15.


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