The 2018 Currie Cup final attracted 27,000 people at Newlands and the two semi-finals in Durban and Cape Town a mere 28,000 between them.
The Currie Cup, despite two wonderful semi-finals, is on life support and either needs to be euthanised or radically overhauled.
It used to be South Africa’s major rugby prize, but professionalism (meaning Super Rugby and endless Bok Tests) have changed its status in the game, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
However, to keep running the tournament as some sort of league competition in a cluttered rugby calendar where players’ unions are rightly calling for better welfare for its members, is not working.
All provinces, other than the Golden Lions Rugby Union, which has a wealthy private benefactor, are under massive financial strain. The Currie Cup is a major source of the financial burden they’re under because the top teams have to fund massive squads to compete in two league competitions. It’s not sustainable.
So what do we do with the old trophy, donated by shipping magnate Sir Donald Currie in 1891? The intricate gilded-silver water jug was awarded to the first team to beat the touring British rugby side to South Africa.
As it turned out the British remained unbeaten during their 19-match tour so the Currie Cup was awarded to Griqualand West because they ‘only’ lost 3-0. The trophy was given to the South African Rugby Board and in 1892 the Currie Cup was awarded to the champions of an inter-provincial rugby tournament that was in its third season.
It’s a lot of history to throw away by placing the old jug at the SA Rugby Museum, so how do we keep the trophy current and relevant?
It’s time to make the Currie Cup a ruthless knockout competition, a la the FA Cup, even if that means teams may only play two games in the competition.
With Super Rugby set to be one seamless competition from 2020, that would be a good time to debut the knockout Currie Cup. SA’s 14 provinces plus two other sides – drawn from the likes of Kenya, Zimbabwe and Namibia – make up 16 teams.
There are top eight seeds – the four Super Rugby franchises and four PRO 14 teams (which is likely to be the case after 2020).
So, the Sharks, WP, Lions, Blue Bulls, Cheetahs, Griquas, Kings and Pumas draw one of the other eight in a two-legged knockout with the winners advancing to the quarter-finals.
The eight losers play in a Plate competition that runs on a league format while the eight winners repeat the knockout process.
Initially the top eight teams should go through, guaranteeing at least four Currie Cup games for the elite (which is only two fewer than they played this season anyway) and two home games, which is only one fewer than they had this season.
The semis would also be played over two legs and the final is at a pre-determined venue, which could be Soccer City, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium or the Cape Town Stadium. Make the final an occasion like the FA Cup. The top two teams would only play seven games.
That would allow unions to contract fewer senior players as their Super Rugby/PRO 14 and Currie Cup squads would be virtually the same. Even teams involved in PRO 14 could fit a few knockout games in around their other commitments.
Also, by making the matches knockout, adds an edge. Think how dramatic the two 2018 semis were. They were dramatic because they were all-or-nothing contests. The knockout element would bring that to each match, including for the minnows, who could spring some surprises.
In years to come, if possible, Varsity Cup teams such as Maties could be added to the early knockout stages of the tournament adding another layer of interest.
It’s a radical idea, but one thing is certain – if we continue as we are, the Currie Cup withers and dies a slow and unedifying death.