Cape Town - The imminent, short and sharp latest edition of the Currie Cup will have a key dual purpose.
While stripped of at least a couple of dozen of the elite batch of Springboks that national coach Rassie Erasmus earmarks alongside his overseas-based personnel for his Rugby Championship and, more importantly, RWC 2019 plans, the tradition-steeped, miraculously resilient domestic tournament will also enable him to keep an open mind over a still significant batch of borderline customers for green-and-gold duty.
Beyond that, too, it loses no additional relevance this year as a priceless developmental forum for raw, emerging talent to bolster South Africa’s currently less than convincing quartet of Super Rugby teams ahead of the 2020 event.
In fact, considering the especially pronounced, depressing evacuation of big names recently from virtually all of that “big four” to more lucrative future salaries abroad, wisening up some of the younger or less trumpeted elements of what’s left in their greater squads for next season as quickly as possible in the Currie Cup will be a very conscious wish of the cash-challenged unions affected.
The rampant exodus of star figures is acutely worrying, of course, and will not help the bid to bolster attendances countrywide in the competition that is a step down, in many ways, from a Super Rugby competition not exactly flourishing these days for interest itself.
Don’t be too surprised, for example, if the bosses at Newlands for Saturday’s feature match between old rivals Western Province and the Blue Bulls (17:15) are quietly content if they can coax perhaps between 10-12 000 souls through the turnstiles, given suitably mild - the expectation - conditions.
That figure for “south v north” would have been considered little short of disastrous not too many years ago; something just a little closer to a mini-godsend in economically grim 2019.
But at the same time - and in confirmation that South Africa does always manage to keep a pipeline pumping even in a deteriorating climate - a glance at some of the Currie Cup squads assembled by the more traditional Test unions, in particular, doesn’t suggest all is lost. (Even if the always lesser-light Pumas and Griquas could be in for a roughish ride over the next few weeks?)
The tournament, kicking off with Friday night’s encounter between defending champions the Sharks and Griquas in Durban (19:15), will still offer up enough personalities well worth monitoring for Bok call-ups, either because the likely players concerned routinely wow the event or are helped by the inevitable likelihood of injuries among Erasmus’s more consciously-intended A-tier troops.
The holders aren’t the worst case to begin with: we should see continued development as an excitement machine from the lanky racehorse who is their 21-year-old fullback Aphelele Fassi, probably aided by Curwin Bosch, another renowned game-breaker, settling with better regularity than in Super Rugby into the influential pivot berth.
It is going to be intriguing, too, to see just how much galloping magic remains in the ageing legs of RWC 2007-winning JP Pietersen, more renowned as a right wing but seemingly stationed at No 13 on Friday in his poignant return to Kings Park action - and on his 33rd birthday.
Just as new Sharks mastermind Sean Everitt is pledging a more 15-man, up-tempo sort of formula from his charges, counterpart at WP John Dobson - set for his Super Rugby senior stripes as Stormers coach in 2020 - has also said he wants to spark the kind of eye-catching, strike-from-anywhere “chaos” that brings his own X-factor customers as strongly into play over the next couple of months as possible.
That means someone like the ever-expressive Dillyn Leyds, whose donkeywork has also looked more robust this year, will be a major beneficiary with his multi-skilled qualities: he last represented the Boks in late 2017 but the 26-year-old has potential - given his pleasing versatility, too - to add yet to his nine caps.
Province will also have a fine tighthead duo slugging it out for starting honours in Wilco Louw and the returning Carlu Sadie, whose loan spell at the Lions has ended ... quite likely to the major detriment of the red-and-whites.
While defence is often rather more naïve and porous in the Currie Cup than it is in Super Rugby, most of the seven teams’ masterminds will realise that an entertaining product is, nevertheless, increasingly essential.
One of the reasons the SA quartet underwhelmed in Super Rugby 2019 was their struggle to cross the whitewash: the Stormers averaged a particularly humble 2.1 tries per game in ordinary season, the Sharks 2.5, Bulls 2.6 and Lions 3.3.
The Lions have been in some administrative disarray preceding the domestic tournament, considering weight of player losses in the last few weeks and coaching-staff issues as well, so will do well to dazzle in the Currie Cup this year despite their generally greater comfort in try-scoring (though they may also leak them disturbingly).
Expect Bok coach Erasmus to be closely examining the showings in round one, from a Bulls perspective in Cape Town, of fit-again, highest-calibre lock Lood de Jager, but also in-form right wing Cornal Hendricks who has spiritedly overcome medical dramas ... oh yes, and scrumhalf Embrose Papier?
The last-named player seems to have tumbled noticeably down the Bok pecking order at No 9, but maybe some people have short memories: Papier did dovetail very decently at times in the 2018 international season with established flyhalf Handre Pollard and does not warrant write-off …
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