Cape Town – The 2019 Currie Cup has done more than its bit to justify the theory that “less is more”.
Compressed into a mere nine weeks in total this year and with ordinary season contested on a single-round basis, the battered old beast has nevertheless underlined – somehow -- its remarkable resilience in a rugby landscape that increasingly elbows it toward the margins of relevance.
While it is unlikely to be great again any time soon, the domestic competition still shows a noticeable enough pulse, and that is something to gratify the purists to an extent.
At least statistically, and with only the Cheetahs-Lions showpiece to come in Bloemfontein this Saturday, the strength-versus-strength quality of this year’s tournament has been virtually beyond dispute.
An awful lot of matches have been decided either notably late or by incredibly tight score-lines, which falls nicely in line with SARU’s stated goal at the outset that they want “every match to count”.
Look at finalists the Lions, for prime example: all four of their wins were achieved by never more than two points, with each of two losses not being by more than five points, either.
There was also a tantalising scramble right to the death to determine the closing pecking order in log placements for the semi-final seedings: only three points eventually separated the top-placed Cheetahs (22) and fourth-placed Sharks (19).
This season was satisfying also for the absence of any tangibly lame ducks. Although the Pumas ended in basement seventh with one win from six, bear in mind how close they came to upsetting the Lions in Johannesburg in the opening round (eventually pipped 38-37) and that they only had one true “blowout” in being trounced 45-14 by Western Province at Newlands.
The situation was in stark contrast to 2018 when the gap between top (WP, six wins out of six and 30 points) and bottom (Cheetahs, 0/6 and a miserly two points) was enormous.
But the big difference was that the Cheetahs -- damagingly to the competition’s credibility last year – overwhelmingly fielded a second team in the Currie Cup because of the pronounced clash then (in a more customary non-World Cup year) with the Pro14.
This year they avoided that inconvenience and, whether they win the title or are runners-up on Saturday, the event has been much the richer for their full-strength participation.
While Super Rugby ending later again next year – it needs to factor in a return to the June Test window breather – will force an associated later start to the Currie Cup than this year’s July 12, there seems no standout reason to restore it to a double-round format last visited in 2017.
That would simply aggravate greatly the danger of the domestic tournament and Pro14 clashing violently in scheduling terms … and the Cheetahs having to field their (considerably less appealing) “babies” in the Currie Cup once more.
The Free Staters doing so well domestically in 2019 has seen a gradual upsurge in spectator interest at their stronghold, to the point that almost 20,000 people reportedly witnessed the semis humdinger against the Sharks, and the central union probably fancy an additional 10-15,000 through the gates – close to a full house -- for the final.
Near-neighbours Griquas being so unexpectedly competitive for much of the campaign also meant pretty reasonable attendances (it’s all relative these days and in grim economic times, of course) in Kimberley.
One of the advantages of staging a more “quickfire” Currie Cup is that it gives the bigger quartet of unions better time to prepare, without the burden of near-constant competition, for the following year’s Super Rugby, meaning a healthier emphasis on conditioning and mental freshness for the long slog in the SANZAAR event.
You may run into some disagreement from someone like John Dobson, the WP/Stormers coach who believes a single-round, more intense Currie Cup format – where one defeat could be a mortal blow -- curtails the luxury of testing out rookies more meaningfully from time to time at that level, for bigger-picture purposes.
But it is also hard to dispute, I think, that the shorter Currie Cup intriguingly draws the smaller teams closer to contention, given their squad-strength limitations and the way a double round, with its greater likelihood of wear and tear, would challenge their depth and durability more severely.
Smoke signals from the corridors of power suggest to me that there is no noticeable rebellion on the brew (from the relevant unions, sponsors DirectAxis through to broadcasters SuperSport) for a return to a more expanded format in the immediate future.
The Currie Cup, as presently constituted, may be dancing as spiritedly as it possibly can.
I recommend a virtual carbon copy next year, even if there may be certain, slightly trickier calendar challenges to grapple.
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