World rugby’s oldest provincial competition, the Currie Cup, is back this weekend in yet another guise.
2019’s edition is merely a single-round tournament that concludes as early as 7 September in order to accommodate the Cheetahs’ Pro14 challenge as well as the World Cup.
It’s certainly a far cry from the good old days.
Nonetheless, the Currie Cup remains important in terms of cultivating depth for Super Rugby, especially given how the so-called “Big Four” franchises are paralysed by overseas defections.
Here’s a snapshot of what to expect from the teams.
Coach: Pote Human
Captain: Burger Odendaal
For a team that’s been gutted at the conclusion of this year’s Super Rugby campaign, the men from Loftus have a surprisingly solid look (relatively speaking of course). The backline is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown with various experienced members like Cornal Hendricks, Odendaal, Marnitz Boshoff, Rosko Specman and Johnny Kotze hoping to inspire. Up front, the Bulls also hardly lack some grunt and wisdom, though one feels they’re one of two injuries away from the pack becoming a problem.
Key player: The underrated Odendaal is one of the more accomplished inside centres in the country and will provide much direction.
FREE STATE CHEETAHS
Coach: Franco Smith
Captain: Tian Meyer
The Cheetahs will in all likelihood continue their tradition of being a Currie Cup powerhouse as they’ll have all their Pro14 players fresh and available for the whole tournament. It’s hardly a power-packed group of players, but one that, given their experience in Europe, should be able to withstand the rigours of the local competition. Should they stay injury-free, an unfashionable but eminently competent squad of loose forwards could be a highlight.
Key player: William Small-Smith’s versatility and playmaking ability in a back division that lacks specialists in certain positions means he’s an asset.
Coach: Brent Janse van Rensburg
Captain: George Whitehead
When one considers the overall strength of the competition, Griquas actually need to be considered a dark horse rather than enthusiastic also-rans. Fresh from their triumph in the SuperSport Challenge, coach Brent Janse van Rensburg has an established pattern and a tantalising bunch of untapped talents eager to make their mark. This is a union that’s recruited very cannily … and they could spring surprises.
Key player: Young flanker Gideon van der Merwe lit up the Varsity Cup for NWU-Pukke this year with his explosiveness and physique. At his best, he’s a coach’s dream: big and skillful.
Coach: Cash van Rooyen
Captain: Ross Cronje
For the past few years, the Lions have invested heavily in some of South Africa’s leading junior players. With a legion of experienced members having left, one might as well take the plunge and rebuild all the way with those youngsters. That’s exactly what the team from Ellis Park seems to have done. You can bet it’s going to be exciting all the way, but expect some negative overall results and some wayward moments.
Key player: At 30, the nippy Marnus Schoeman is the eldest member of the squad and a flanker equally adept at stealing ball and holding his own in the collisions.
Coach: Jimmy Stonehouse
Captain: Ryan Nell
There’s an argument to be made that the Pumas nowadays can always be considered a heavyweight in the Currie Cup. Jimmy Stonehouse’s teams have a habit of starting like a house on fire, only to fade away in the latter stages. If 2018 is anything to go by though, the Pumas’ biggest challenge is tying new strings to their bow in terms of their game-plan. That template was picked apart by some sides last year. But never count your chickens against these guys.
Key player: So much of the Pumas’ play in centred around flyhalf Chris Smith, a real talent.
Coach: Sean Everitt
Captains: Jeremy Ward and Tera Mtembu
The thing that keeps the Durbanites back in Super Rugby is their big strength in the Currie Cup. The Sharks regularly boast a fairly deep squad that invariably proves to be one of the strongest in the tournament. As defending champions and playing under the more laid-back style of new coach Sean Everitt, the Sharks should be quite difficult to beat.
Key player: With no-one to watch for behind his back, Curwin Bosch should flourish at flyhalf.
Coach: John Dobson
Captain: Chris van Zyl
Their administrative and financial chaos aside, the Streeptruie remain a remarkably strong outfit. They’ve made success in the tournament a habit under coach John Dobson and there are more than enough experienced men around to supplement a burgeoning generation of new potential heroes.
Key player: Wilco Louw is a bit out of favour at national level. That should spur him on and no local side will bemoan a tighthead that goes on a rampage.