This year’s Currie Cup has produced a mixture of emotions, from the frustration of a shortened competition to the excitement of some sublime tries.
However, one question has become more pressing with every weekend – is Western Province that much better than everyone else, or has the standard of their opponents just dropped so badly?
Firstly, it must be said that the constant tinkering with the competition has done it no favours – the number of teams seems to change every year. Neither has the exodus of players overseas, compounded by the recent advent of Japanese clubs taking top stars away from the competition during the domestic season.
The drawn-out focus on Super Rugby hasn’t helped promote the domestic product and, coupled with some ineffective marketing and a general apathy among rugby unions about how to get fans back into seats, the competition has generally suffered.
But rugby purists are enthralled by the Currie cup every year, and the tries – even though the standard may be lower than Super Rugby – brings out the tribalism in each of us. So it’s worth questioning whether Western Province, who swept all before them and secured a full house of bonus points, play at a very high level, or whether the rest of the teams have fallen off.
It is a question that popped up in the monsoon rain that limited the Loftus derby between the Bulls and Province to just one half, especially as the visitors had played exceptionally well to record a 34-7 lead in the opening 40 minutes.
A format of single round matches, including a four-week break (as in the case of the Blue Bulls) has made it difficult to determine just how strong the competition is. For everyone except Province, of course, and that’s no fault of theirs.
They possess an experienced management team that has come through the ranks, been backed for four years and have coached together as a unit. That settled approach is a far cry from what has happened at Loftus, or even across the Jukskei for that matter. And while the Sharks always seem to have the best team on paper, in reality they tend to fall foul of their own demons when it’s crunch time. The Durban semi-final against the Lions is possibly the trickiest game of the season for them.
But it is more than the coaching that has made Province a success. They’ve built their rugby on the basis of good defence, solid set pieces and a will to run the ball when it has mattered.
And while some have talked them up for playing sexy rugby, forward play has been the bedrock of their success, coupled with a plethora of experience that other sides don’t have, such as JJ Engelbrecht, Jano Vermaak and Dylan Lleyds. SP Marais has upward of 50 Super Rugby caps while lock Chris van Zyl’s leadership has put WP in the driver’s seat.
It is that which has made the difference and which, when coupled with the raw talent of Damian Willemse or Sergeal Petersen’s electric runs, makes it look special. JD Schickerling’s progress in the second row is the envy of other unions and when you get Wilco Louw back in the frame of mind he displayed at Loftus, few teams can contend with Province.
The Pro14 would probably be a better measure of this WP team – they would certainly be a better bet than the two SA teams in the competition right now.
Province have dominated all comers this Currie Cup and they may well romp to the title in just more than one week’s time. Regardless of questions about the standard of SA’s premier domestic competition, WP deserves kudos for putting together a blend of youth and experience that gels just right, and assembling a tight and talented coaching team.