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 is touting a shortened format as providing more action — and viewers — for the century old competition. Fans are lobbing a lot of criticism their way because of this. The competition’s history is stellar, the present remains to be seen and the future now relatively uncertain.
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.
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
The coming season has it’s own issues to contend with. One of them being the simultaneous running of the tournament alongside the Guinness Pro 14. This was never an issue until the end of last year, when the Cheetahs and Southern Kings joined teams from Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy in the European competition. The Cheetahs, frequently competitive in the Currie Cup, now have to field almost two distinct teams for their campaigns. Springbok duties usually weaken all of the Unions teams, but this creates a whole new precedent in the Free State camp.
As winning in the Pro 14 will be their top priority, the Cheetahs unintentionally undermine the quality of the Currie Cup. Another point of view 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 3 of the Currie Cup the Cheetahs play the Sharks at home. However, they also play Munster at Thomond Park in Ireland one hour 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 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 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 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.
The 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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