Durban – For a century, the Currie Cup was the rampant stallion of South African rugby but for many, it is now an old nag that must be led to the knackers yard.
For some in the current eight-team competition, it is their alpha and omega but for others, it is an irritating flea.
It is indeed a competition riddled with contradictions.
For long periods, the 2023 Currie Cup will have some teams at chronic under strength only for them to have most of their hands on deck towards the end of it when premier competitions such as the United Rugby Championship and the Heineken Cup are over.
Last year, the South African public was enthralled by the Cinderella final between Griquas and the Pumas and there was hardly a dry eye in the house when the Pumas’ burly boss, Jimmy Stonehouse, choked up when he cuddled the trophy between his big biceps.
That beautiful but battered old Cup has been contested for 130 years and when you consider the illustrious heroes of South African rugby who have raised it after so many epic finals, who would have thought that one day it would be the property of a humble team from Nelspruit?
Mind you, Griquas won it in 1899, although to give you some fascinating historical context, powerhouses Western Province and Transvaal did not participate because most of the players of the former were fighting for the British in the Anglo-Boer War and many of the Transvaal players were in the Boer commandos.
But while last year’s final in Kimberley was a joy to watch as two lightweights fought their hearts out for the heavyweight title, this year the Currie Cup has no sponsor.
Carling Black Label has emptied its glass and left the building.
It kind of sums up where the Currie Cup is in the grand scheme of things. Previously, it was a sponsor’s dream, but now people just don’t know what to make of it.
That is because it is a competition that has lost its identity. Currently, it is trying to be too many things to too many people, and failing.
In one corner you have the Cheetahs, the newly promoted Griffons, the Pumas and the Griquas. Aside from the Free Staters having a semblance of involvement in a second-tier competition in Europe, these teams have nothing else to play in and they are giving it horns.
Ask the Bulls about being gored — Stonehouse’s pumped-up Pumas put 60 past them at Loftus in the opening round.
The Bulls, of course, have bigger fish to fry. They are fighting for their lives in the URC and that is where their resources are steered.
It is the same with the Sharks. The Sharks team that the up-and-coming coach Joey Mongalo put on the field against the Purple People Eaters from Welkom (they won the First Division last year to earn promotion) was what he euphemistically called “a melting pot” of URC fringe players, Under-20s and club players.
Others would say it was the scrapings from the bottom of the Shark Tank.
Speaking of Mongalo, I reckon he is going to go far. He has done apprenticeships at the Lions (when they were cooking in Super Rugby) and the Bulls when they were the best team in South Africa, and I predict he has the skills to go far.
And Mongalo is passionate. Last week, he said: “I get annoyed when people question the quality of the Currie Cup. If you offered the head of rugby in Ireland, David Nucifora, a competition where the next best players, coaches and management could be in a high-pressure environment for 16 weeks to the final, he would jump on it.
“But in South Africa, we have that. The Currie Cup is a great product. There is no need for us to look down on the Currie Cup. It is the place where the next URC players will come from — in fact, the next Springboks.”
“I am proud to be coaching in it and I feel strongly about it being elevated to the prestige that it deserves.”
Good on Mangalo but I suspect that in the higher corridors at the Shark Tank, the powers-that-be will be wondering how on earth they can find the tools for Mongalo to work with.
ALSO READ: Kade Wolhuter, Clayton Blommetjies on song as Western Province extend Bulls’ misery at Loftus
SA Rugby has a ceiling of 45 contracted players per union. At any one time, all teams sit with half a dozen or so injuries and then if you are a URC union you have to spread the rest across multiple competitions.
Consider this weekend’s situation at Hollywoodbets Kings Park. On Monday a squad of 26 or so of the best Sharks travels to Wales for a crucial URC match against the Scarlets, yet the day before the Sharks played a Currie Cup match away to Griquas.
ALSO READ: Fred Zeilinga starts at flyhalf for Sharks’ Currie Cup clash against Griquas
In conclusion, I agree with Mongalo that we should be pleased that other top rugby countries are jealous of the Currie Cup’s production line of talent but if the nag is to be a stallion once more it needs some first aid.
SA Rugby needs to give the Currie Cup the respect it deserves in terms of planning and scheduling because right now it is a Jack of all trades and a master of none.