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Currie Cup Crush

I didn’t grow up in a rugby household, so I discovered the game relatively late by South African standards. I think I was in Grade 8 or 9 when I dated a rugby player and started going to watch his games – that teenage crush only lasted a few months, but my love affair with rugby turned out to be the real deal. And of course, in the early nineties, if you were South African and you cared about rugby, the Currie Cup was everything. One of my clearest memories of those early years of falling in love with the game was trying (and failing) to find someone to go to the 1993 Currie Cup final between Natal and Transvaal with me – not that we likely would have been able to get tickets anyway. Such was the prestige of one of the oldest domestic rugby competitions in the world. Lately, though, as the rugby calendar becomes ever more complicated and cluttered, it feels as if this tournament, which kicks off again on Friday, has lost some of its shine.

There’s a lot of rugby happening these days – so much that some (possibly slightly weird) fans are actually complaining that they’re getting sick of watching all of it. With South Africa’s move away from Super Rugby, and entry into the URC and European Champions and Challenge Cups, along with the usual inbound tours, Rugby Championship, and outbound tours, there’s barely a weekend when there isn’t any rugby happening. It makes it very difficult to keep people excited about a purely domestic competition like the Currie Cup that is no longer able to boast full strength teams because those players are competing in all the aforementioned tournaments. And yet, if we lost the Currie Cup, we would be losing a lot more than just a piece of South Africa’s rugby heritage – we’d be losing the opportunity to identify some of our most exceptional talent.

According to both Joey Mongalo, Sharks Defence Coach (and last year’s Currie Cup Coach for the franchise), and Neil Powell, Sharks Director of Rugby, the Currie Cup is a vital component of the talent pipeline, not only for players, but for coaches too. It’s a tournament that allows younger players from under 19, under 20, or under 21 competitions to take a step up to the next level and experience those systems and pressures, while also giving those players who have already been on the fringes of competitions like the URC, but haven’t had as much game time as they would have liked, the opportunity to showcase their talent. Neil explains, “There’s obviously a bit of a step up from the U21 Currie Cup to the senior Currie Cup, and I think it’s an ideal opportunity for us to test some of these youngsters that we believe are talented enough to play in the senior levels, to see what they’re capable of, and make better informed decisions about whether they can make that step up to the URC in the future.”

Likewise, some of the coaches who have been involved at the junior level are afforded opportunities for growth. This year, Joey won’t be involved with the Currie Cup, as Neil points out that the URC preseason coincides with the Currie Cup, and he’ll be prepping the Sharks’ URC squad from a defensive perspective - this opens the door for coaches like JP Pietersen, Mike Vowles, and MB Lusaseni, who have only coached the U21s previously, to advance. As Joey says, “It exposes coaches to the highest level of pressure provincially, which is something the guys wouldn’t have had. You see a lot of coaches coming through the age group ranks who are now coaching Currie Cup, which is a great thing, it means our coaching stocks are also growing just as much as our playing stocks.”

The smaller unions subsist solely on the Currie Cup. Lose that, and we would almost certainly lose the Griffons, Pumas, Griquas, and even the Cheetahs, along with much of the talent found in those teams. Joey adds, “If you look at Faf de Klerk, he came from the Pumas, went to the Lions, became a Springbok. A guy like Tinus de Beer was at the Pumas last year, now he’s probably Cardiff’s best player and potentially can play bigger rugby elsewhere. Without the Currie Cup, those guys don’t fall into the catchment area, and then there’s no rugby for them. We can potentially lose out on talent that can play all the way at the top.”

Of course, as important as the Currie Cup is, it’s not without its challenges, or we wouldn’t be having this discussion. There has always been some overlap with international rugby, which in the past would usually see heated debates about whether Springbok players should be parachuted in at the tail end of the competition, while fans also eagerly anticipated seeing those stars in action against each other. Scheduling conflicts have only intensified now that we are playing in Europe. Since COVID, and our departure from Super Rugby, the competition has been shifted around a few times to try and find the best possible window, but it’s always going to be difficult. Mandatory rest periods, crucial for player welfare, complicate things further. On top of this, commercial complexities play a role too. International games take precedence when it comes to TV rights and prime viewing slots, meaning that Currie Cup games are often scheduled at times that make it difficult for people to get to the stadium, or even watch them on TV because they’re happening at 3pm on a workday. Larger unions also struggle to fill their stadiums, but are bound to play games there because of suite holders. Does that mean it’s all doom and gloom, and we have to resign ourselves to a Currie Cup that is a shadow of its former self?

Not according to Neil and Joey. Both believe that these challenges can also be seen as opportunities. Neil points out that the calendar and compulsory rest periods have encouraged teams to look at the Currie Cup differently and use it as an opportunity to test young talent. Joey adds, “The Currie Cup is something that is envied by other nations – very few have got the ability to field a similar competition this time of the year, which gives us almost a third layer of players to develop internally. Every union gets an opportunity to see what the next best youngsters are like. If they can be put through that furnace and survive the Currie Cup, and thrive in the Currie Cup, then we know we’ve got a player for the future. I think the challenge is also an opportunity: an opportunity for each province to empty their stocks and see what they really have.”

It's clear that Neil and Joey are looking forward to seeing what the Currie Cup holds for the Sharks this year, and what their junior systems have produced. So how do we get everyone else excited about the tournament again? As Joey says, we reframe the narrative. We remember that for the coaches and the players, its still about representing your province, so the pressure is still on. And we celebrate the fact that not only is the Currie Cup a competition that is steeped in history and heritage, it’s also the perfect furnace in which future Springbok talent can be forged.

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