Currie Cup

Currie Cup: Flimsy squads a bad sign

2018-08-16 14:43
John Dobson (Gallo)

Cape Town - Its durability has been quite remarkable, considering the variety of hazards and disadvantages placed in its way over the last few years.

But expect the age-old Currie Cup to face tough challenges all over again as it begins in its more streamlined 2018 shape on Friday (two slightly ho-hum fixtures, on paper, in the form of Pumas v Griquas, Free State XV v Blue Bulls).

This time the bosses at SA Rugby are pinning their hopes on a “less is more” approach, as a single-round formula slashes it to a quick-fire, effectively eight-week tournament - the seven teams play six games each, ahead of conventional semi-finals featuring the top four and then the showpiece in late October.

There will be greater urgency to win games, almost undoubtedly, as a result of the significant format change, and some of the coaches have bought into the new model with reasonable enthusiasm, celebrating that it is less of a slog for their personnel in these long modern seasons, and giant-killings may occur.

Interestingly, though, the man behind Western Province’s trophy triumph last season, John Dobson, is a dissident - he argues that it will be tough, as one of the traditional “big unions”, to keep properly motivated a large squad for such a short competition where, just for example, your third scrumhalf or hooker may find himself inactive almost all the time if injuries don’t get in the way a lot.

Speaking of squads, the portents for a truly high-quality competition don’t look too good, if perusal of the groups named by some of the participating teams is anything to go by.

To put it with cruel frankness, you pick up an unavoidable, too strong sense of squads comprising generous doses of extremely novice-like customers or clumps of journeymen who are known to be well below Super Rugby standards … and might not even have cracked Currie Cup premier-tier activity in years not terribly distant.

Somehow it seems fitting, then, that a few of the traditional provincial powers appear to be branding their Currie Cup teams “XVs” rather than employing the more customary - and appealing? - main provincial title (hence now Free State XV, Golden Lions XV and Sharks XV).

It may not be the best way to sell your product, I suspect, in these enduringly harsh economic times.

We already know that staple Springboks feature less and less at Currie Cup level these days, as the Rugby Championship will again overlap enormously with the domestic competition, although a select handful might yet get the green light to appear in the knockout phase if not too overworked in the four-nation competition.

But with Super Rugby also an increasing priority at the four major unions, and some of them releasing players from those ranks for several months for strong-currency spells abroad before the following year’s competition, the Currie Cup certainly does only get shoved further and further into the margins.

It is a sad reflection of the extent to which classy South African rugby players - young, mid-career and older; few exceptions these days – are coaxed abroad on a full-time basis that a franchise like the Lions trumpet “signings” as they did this week … but of players already on their books, rather than any reinforcing, new figures.

Mere retention, it seems - and even if some stars are only committing to one extra year - is somehow as much of a “victory” in the current climate as luring fresh faces, whilst again Super Rugby is the overwhelming beneficiary rather than Currie Cup: the Lions are happy to let a significant core of players disappear to Japan in our late winter and only return in the nick of time for Super Rugby.

This year’s Currie Cup will also face a credibility test by the smaller unions - just how competitive can “platteland” sides Griquas and the Pumas be nowadays, given the knock-on effect countrywide of defections to northern climes and the natural inclination of bigger unions, as a consequence, to have to poach their ranks for depth purposes?

Then there is the question of the Free State XV: it is going to be mightily tough (tougher even than last year, given how many decent names have since deserted Bloemfontein) for them to balance the harrowing, potentially very fatiguing responsibilities of fielding teams in the Currie Cup and distant PRO14, and trying to be contenders in both.

Of course they are pretty integral to the history of the domestic competition, with five title successes to show and most of them within the last decade and a half.

But with audiences on the other side of the equator sure to get increasingly restless if both the Cheetahs and Kings struggle to muster compelling enough standards in their respective second years in PRO14, that will have to be their priority - so the Currie Cup team could just suffer glaringly. 

Yes, the Currie Cup this year remains enveloped in formidable uncertainty, despite the format overhaul.

Thank goodness that through all the pitfalls, it somehow retains a staunch lobby of people whose affection for it doesn’t dim.

Their undying love will be desperately necessary all over again, methinks …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    wp  |  currie cup  |  john dobson  |  rugby

 

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