The Currie Cup, South Africa’s premier provincial rugby competition and the oldest surviving provincial rugby tournament in the world, has always been the showcase of local rugby talent and a breading ground for future Springbok players.
The competition has been seen in various guises since its inception in 1889, from being an inter town competition to a tournament held at a central venue. Only from 1922 did the home and away league system appear, with the very first Currie Cup final being played at Newlands between Western Province and Transvaal. In the late 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, the dominant unions were the 5 traditional “Test” unions of Western Province, Eastern Province, Free State, Transvaal, Northern Transvaal and one other union which had earned their place via the dreaded promotion/relegation route.
During the 1990’s, the competition was expanded to include all 14 Provincial Rugby Unions in South Africa in the interests of accelerating the racial transformation of the game and to include previously excluded communities. This resulted in some extremely lopsided results and after a few seasons it was decided to reconstitute the competition again under the guise of a “strength versus strength” format and the Premier League comprised of eight teams and the First Division of six teams. Whilst this is a noble concept, it favored the traditionally affluent unions with strong sponsorships and prejudiced those still struggling to come to terms with the new professional era post the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
That being said the format worked well and smaller unions had the opportunity to build teams to qualify for the Premier Division and there was a degree of change in competing teams, with some teams being promoted and others relegated. However, in 2010 it was decided to ruthlessly drop the two teams finishing last in the competition and the Pumas and the Leopards were the two unlucky teams to drop down to the First Division, also in the interests of a strength versus strength competition. Teams in the First Division were offered the reassurance that they would have the opportunity to play in a promotion/relegation series against the team that finishes last in the Premier Division each year. The reality of this is though is that it is extremely unlikely that a team from the First Division will ever be in a position to relegate a Premier Division team as they lack the financial resources to contract top level players and face a player drain of their own as their top players are constantly lured by the top six Unions in the hope of Currie Cup game time as well as a Super Rugby opportunity. The chasm between the have and the have nots is a significant one and it is difficult to see any one of them being able to mount a significant challenge.
The paradox of this strength versus strength competition is that for the bulk of the competition it is actually not strength versus strength at all as the Springbok squad members are withdrawn from the competition to compete in the Rugby Championship and are only available for the semi-finals and final of the competition, as well as conveniently for any promotion relegation series. It is with this in mind that we should consider if this the right format for South Africa. Strength should certainly be rewarded, but some consideration needs to be given to the need to broaden the player base, the marginalization of certain regions in the country, developing young players as well as the transformational needs of the sport.
SARU have recently made the right noises about possibly including the top two teams from the First Division in the Premier Division and this would help to alleviate the gulf between the two competitions. At this stage it would appear as if the Pumas and the Kings would be the two teams in contention for promotion.
However, nothing concrete has been established. If this does indeed transpire we have to wonder if SARU are not setting these two teams up for a monumental failure as significant sponsorship is not that easy to come by. Even with the necessary financial resources in place, headline players will not easily move to a Union on the promise of Currie Cup game time unless this can be guaranteed. SARU’s record in terms of managing the Kings/Lions debacle hardly inspires any confidence.
We can only hope that the correct decision is made. One which will ensure that the Currie Cup is not all about the six entrenched teams but includes new challenges in the face of the occasional new team competing, bringing something new to the Currie Cup in terms of style of play and a contribution towards refreshing the competition.