As someone whose childhood was partly spent in the tumultuous 1980’s, I built up a deep affinity for the Currie Cup. That history between Western Province and the erstwhile Northern Transvaal, for example, is what gives matches between the Bulls and Stormers the meaning and intensity they have today.
I had considerably less time for Naas Botha than Ashwin Willemse does, despised the Transvaal president Louis Luyt whenever he reached for his cheque book to get the player he wanted, and idolised Carel du Plessis.
Apartheid rugby, I hear you say. Bollocks. The strength-versus-strength Currie Cup is what underpinned our rugby but it now appears to be on its last legs. Is it an inevitable outcome of professional rugby? Or a damning verdict of South African rugby’s administrative capacity?
Fact is, at the beginning of every year there is a competition called the Varsity Cup in which the rugby is of a significantly lesser quality. Yet a Maties home match can draw a crowd upwards of 10,000. It’s a figure that provincial unions can only dream of for some of the matches they will be hosting in this year’s Currie Cup. Players want to represent their universities first and foremost.
So how did it come to this? At one stage SuperSport even had to pay a neat price to be able to broadcast these games. Now they probably hold the aces.
I am a fan of the Varsity Cup, but also believe it’s the product of masterful marketing bordering on propaganda. A narrative was created whereby they claimed credit for producing one top player after the other. Corporate partners got some great exposure, there was innovation through experimental rules, and the product was linked to good causes.
Somewhere in among all that the truth was often blurred. Many top players played in the Varsity Cup, but aren’t the product of the competition. They happened to play in it. For example, Eben Etzebeth’s performance in the Currie Cup final of 2012 was far more the making of him than what he achieved in a UCT shirt.
But don’t hold your breath for big crowds on the first weekend of Currie Cup action: Free State Cheetahs v Blue Bulls in Bloemfontein, and Pumas v Griquas in Nelspruit.
Of course, there was a time in the professional era where Currie Cup semi-finals meant something. As things stand the competition is one that is sensibly geared towards developing players for Super Rugby, but without any market appeal. It exists because it has to, rather than anyone wanting it to.
Looking back, South Africa erred at various points in agreeing to Super Rugby expansion. If we had kept it to 12 teams – as was the case in Super Rugby’s heyday – there would be space for the Currie Cup to reclaim its appeal with the participation of world-class players come the play-off stages.
Rather than agreeing to the next hare-brained idea for a Super Rugby format, South Africa should start flexing its muscles at Sanzaar’s negotiating table.
In truth, Super Rugby has laid ruin to our domestic game, to the point where for a decent match-day experience the Varsity Cup is as good as it gets.
Oh, and by the way, the Currie Cup kicks off on August 17. In case you were interested…