There wasn’t the intense engagement from the wider South African rugby public that there may have been in the past, but the Carling Currie Cup final turned into a fitting advert for South African rugby and in several aspects it ensured the season ended on a positive note.
The alignment with the northern hemisphere means that the domestic final, won by the Toyota Cheetahs against the Airlink Pumas in Bloemfontein to give the Free Staters their seventh feel of the famous old trophy, brought down the curtain on the 2022/2023 season. There is of course a Castle Lager Rugby Championship test against Australia in less than two weeks from now to look forward to, and a World Cup warmup match after that, but those games now officially fall outside of the local season.
HAD INGREDIENTS WE WANT AND LACKED INGREDIENTS WE WOULDN’T
The final had all the ingredients we’d want, and lacked the ingredients we wouldn’t want. Among the ingredients most people outside of those who are either forwards or forwards coaches was the absence of the forward drive as a feature when it came to try scoring. The way was paved for the second Cheetahs try by a strong driving maul, but it wasn’t scored by the hooker off the back of his advancing pack - instead the ball had been released and passed down the line.
That hookers are now challenging and maybe even displacing wings, and have for a long time, as the players most likely to get a brace or hat-trick of tries and as the dominant try scorers in a team, is surely an indication of something that is not quite right.
That there weren’t driving mauls in the final could be indicative of two things, the first being good maul defence from both sides, for both protagonists at the Toyota Stadium boast formidable mauls. The second thing it could, and did, indicate was good discipline. If there isn’t a slew of penalties being awarded, then the opportunities to set up at a lineout in the opposition red zone is limited.
Allied to that was what we would find at the top of the list of the ingredients we would not have wanted - the impact on the game of red or yellow cards that impact on flow and momentum and ultimately the end result. No one was sent off for an early shower, no one was made to spend any time on the naughty chair. And as it didn’t happen, no one was talking about it afterwards.
REFEREE WAS ANONYMOUS AND THEREFORE OUTSTANDING
Another thing that no one was talking about afterwards was the influence on the game of referee Cwengile Jadezweni. Which is the way it should be. Refereeing his second Currie Cup final, Jadezweni produced a performance that brought a positive end to a subject that should have bugged South Africans quite a bit this season, namely the quality of the local refereeing.
Refereeing in the country that has produced the likes of Freek Burger, Andre Watson, Jonathan Kaplan, Craig Joubert and Jaco Peyper has been at an all time low this year, but Jadezweni showed why many would rate him second on the list behind Peyper.
He has a calm and efficient yet firm way about him, he is decisive and he puts a quick stop to any potential for conflagration of tetchy moments in the game to blow up. Most importantly, he was unobtrusive. Even in the way he talks to players, meaning without the school teacher or sergeant major attitude of some, makes him an unseen entity, which is the way it should be.
On a day when the people of the Free State showed that the Currie Cup does still mean something to people in that region as they turned a sizeable stadium into a sea of orange, the quality of the rugby and refereeing would have helped sell the game to people who were making a rare visit to live rugby and it may tempt them to do it again for a lesser game next season.
FUTURE OF COMPETITION WARRANTS DEBATE
There are a lot of opinions about the Currie Cup, and I wouldn’t argue too long and hard against those who say the trophy should be put into a museum and a new competition started. This is on the basis that now that the Vodacom United Rugby Championship franchises are so heavily committed to cross hemisphere rugby, the four provinces who have won the Currie Cup the most - Western Province 38, the Bulls 25, the Lions 11 and Sharks 8 - are having to go understrength, there is no longer any comparison with what it used to be.
Of course, there has been an understrength component to the Currie Cup for a long time. That started a few decades ago when the Springboks became committed to first the Tri-Nations and then the Rugby Championship during the first few months of the domestic competition. Up until around 2010, which saw the Sharks and WP clash at full strength in Durban, you still had most Boks playing in the decider. They’d come back for the playoffs.
Subsequent to that, apart from in the Covid year when the Boks didn’t play international rugby, it is hard to remember a full strength final, meaning with all Boks available to those provinces playing in the game. But up until two years ago, there was at least no clash with the international competition, which used to be Super Rugby, so the next best rank and file players would be playing.
That is no longer the case, and when the Bulls did try to stretch their high level players into action across both the URC and the Currie Cup, it was a ploy that bombed. Why this is a problem is because, with all respect to supporters of the Cheetahs and the Pumas, neither of the teams in this final have the mass appeal outside of their regions that the four URC franchises do, and that would have impacted on the engagement of the wider South African public in what should be the showpiece ending to the local domestic season.
CHANGE FORMAT RATHER THAN THE IDENTITY OF THE COMP
Removing the Currie Cup though from the narrative wouldn’t add interest, it would just subtract it further, so perhaps the South African rugby bosses can come up with a different plan, perhaps one that sees the other 10 teams play a double round of Currie Cup before joining the four URC franchises in a truncated strength versus strength shootout at the end of the season.
Where to find the time for that though would be a problem, for the URC will revert to being concluded in June next year. The URC final was only played in May this season because of the Rugby World Cup.
In the meantime though, considering the lower tier it now operates in, the Currie Cup is something to be positive about, and certainly those URC franchises who used it as an opportunity to broaden depth will feel they got something out of it even though they didn’t swell their number of wins.
The Cheetahs and the Pumas also both have players who would not be out of place playing in the URC, and while they don’t like being a feeder to the bigger unions/franchises, it does help the overall good of South African rugby by growing the base.
BOLAND’S BOOST IS POSITIVE FOR SA
Talking about growing the base, the Boland Cavaliers, representing one of the most fertile breeding grounds for rugby players in this country, were excellent in winning the First Division trophy by beating the Valke in a final in Wellington that drew enthusiastic support from the local people.
And while that was happening, the Sunday newspaper rugby writers were busy writing up the story about the biggest positive of all, which is that the owners of the Bulls, Johan Rupert and Remgro and Patrice Motsepe, have bought a 74 per cent shareholding in the union. The injection of money into that region could prove a massive boost for South African rugby.
And the new owners have stated their primary goal as winning the Currie Cup. So who says the Currie Cup doesn’t mean anything?
CARLING CURRIE CUP FINAL
?Toyota Cheetahs 25 Airlink Pumas 17
Currie Cup First Division final
Boland Cavaliers 43 Valke 21