The Currie Cup
DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - OCTOBER 27: Jebb Sinclair celebrates with the trophy after winning the Absa Currie Cup final match between The Sharks and DHL Western Province from Mr Price KINGS PARK on October 27, 2012 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

The Currie Cup is one of the oldest domestic competitions in rugby history and it kick’s off next month. The South African Rugby Union (SARU) is touting a ‘shortened format’ as providing more action – and viewers – for the century old competition. Although, fans are lobbing a lot of criticism their way because of this, but there is no doubt the competition’s history is stellar.

With a strong past, the present remains to be seen. A successful 2018 season will the proof of that – and the future is relatively uncertain. However, it is a popular competition, split into a Premiership* and First Division; and the competition begins on August 17*.

The Currie Cup – Historically Speaking

Sir Donald Currie, a Scottish philanthropist, is the namesake and main instigator of the tournament. Sending a trophy along with the British Isles squad when they toured South Africa in 1891, he ensured the locals had something to play for.

Sir Currie instructed the visitors to hand the trophy to the most deserving of South African teams after their tour. Griqualand West earned the honors after a close defeat against the visitors. Housing the trophy for only one year, they then handed it over in 1892 to the organizers for the first Currie Cup season.

Over the last century, the competition has been the stepping point for future Springboks and high-profile players like Jaco Kriel and Jannie du Plessis (see below image).

The Free State Cheetahs celebrate victory during the Absa Currie Cup Final match between Vodacom Free State Cheetahs and Golden Lions held at Vodacom Park on October 27, 2007 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. (Photo by Duif du Toit/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Recent Format and Scheduling Issues

The Currie Cup format changes more frequently than most. In the last ten years, it’s gone down from fourteen rounds to ten. Then down to nine and last year back up to fourteen. This time around it will only last seven rounds. As South Africa’s premier domestic tournament, it makes sense that it evolves with the geographical trends of the nation.

Some will say the amount of ‘fixes’ in the last decade may be proof that the tournament is struggling to remain relevant. Plagued by many factors, the Currie Cup competition remains the proving ground for young talent. That alone cements it as a necessary and vital part of South African rugby’s grindstones.

Present Woes of the Currie Cup/Pro14 conflict

The coming season has it’s own issues to contend with. The format and length of season has again been adjusted. While it will still not matter to the loyal fans across the nation, attendance will be judged, as multi-media and viewer habits change in rugby.

One of the present woes is the simultaneous running of the 2018 tournament alongside the Guinness Pro 14. This was never an issue until the end of last year, when the Cheetahs and Southern Kings were culled from the Super Rugby competition. It forced those unions to join teams from Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy in the European-based competition.

The Cheetahs (frequently competitive in the Currie Cup) now have to field almost two distinct teams for their campaigns. A professional Pro 14 group, and then another Currie Cup unit. Adding to that issue, Springbok duties usually weaken all of the SARU Unions during August to September. So this creates a ‘whole new precedent’ in the Free State camp.

As winning and performing in the Guinness Pro 14 will be their top priority, it has in an unintentional way, undermined the quality of the Currie Cup squad. Another point of view though is, that it strengthens the Union, allowing for less experienced players to step into the limelight.

As an example of the Cheetahs’ problems, in week three of the 2018 Currie Cup, the Cheetahs play the Sharks at home. However, they also play Munster at Thomond Park in Ireland one week later, in the Pro 14’s opening round. Safe to say they won’t keep their best guys in South Africa for the Sharks match. If this kind of scheduling conflicts continue, it will be a long time before the Free State Cheetahs’ display the Currie Cup in Bloemfontein again.

Exodus of Players from South Africa

There is also the much discussed exodus of players from South Africa. Few star performers remain to compete for South African glory, with mega-clubs in Europe and Asia luring them overseas. So not only does the Currie Cup organizers have to compete with the schedules, they also have to match the paychecks players are being offered overseas.

For the Super Rugby franchises, this is easy as one contract usually ensures their players are retained for the Currie Cup, with the exception of a group of elite players who move on to Japan during this time.

The Cheetahs are once again tripped up as their scheduling clashes mean they need a bigger pool of players on retainer.

Currie Cup future looks Bleak

There are no easy fixes for the Currie Cup’s future. Nobody really knows how to solve the issues and ensure an entertaining competition into the future. It’s all the same kind of ad hoc, cut and paste fixes that the South African Rugby Union has been trying for the last decade. The easiest option would be for fans to lower their expectations.

Although die-hard provincial fans hold the Currie Cup dear, it no longer holds the same status it once did.

It’s time to cast a new eye on the competition. At one time, a Currie Cup title was equal to a Super Rugby championship. Accepting that this is no longer the case and the international tournaments take precedent, will allow fans to still appreciate the competition. Instead of trying to schedule the tournament inside the available window, SARU should go back to holding it regardless of other commitments by the Unions. This will develop players in a senior competition and also allow for some players to retire from International Rugby while continuing to play for their home province.

The Currie Cup has it’s place in modern South African rugby. That place is a ruthless, local training ground for the future stars and a wind-down for some experienced legends.

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The 2018 Currie Cup begins on August 17, with the opening two Premiership matches. That continues a week later, with the First Division continuing the rich history of the Currie Cup.

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