Currie Cup cull: There will be (some) benefits

News24 - Wednesday 16th May, 2018
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Cape Town - The Currie Cup has been bludgeoned to supposed death on innumerable occasions before.

Each time, of course, the resilient old beast heaves slowly back open its coffin lid, protesting with an admirable defiance that it is not quite ready to go and would like a wee dram.

It certainly lost an arm, a leg and plenty more of its anatomy this week when SA Rugby - to a deafening sound of self-engineered fanfare - proclaimed that it would be curtailed to a single round of matches in 2018.

The move is not quite as revolutionary or earth-shattering as you may think, considering that the Currie Cup has been contested on a single-round (or at least close to single-round) basis before in certain recent years - albeit with more teams on those occasions than the current, economical seven.

Nevertheless, it is still quite a structural battering for the grand old dame, first contested in 1891, the year of the first removable bicycle tyre, maiden production of the Swiss Army Knife and the (first) Springhill mining disaster in Canada.

It's all, you see, in the interests of bringing back the "boutique" element to the competition, at least if you are to believe the spin doctors.

And the slightly unnerving thing, to some among us who hold it steadfastly dear, is that whether by good intention or any darker considerations, they may just be on the right track ... even if this year's hostilities will be an acid examination of the wisdom of the profound reduction.

At the same time, let's spare a thought for those most fervent domestic devotees to whom the Currie Cup may be as desirable as ... well, a ring donut. Suddenly the sticky thing you're handed in a bag is only half a beloved ring donut, and that's just cruel.

And how about the specialist Currie Cup coaches? Or the still significant tally of players in the competition who see little or no Super Rugby action, and rely on a generous roster in the all-South African competition to showcase their worth?

It's difficult to suppress a feeling that they've somehow been diddled.

But is less more? Might less actually prove good for us?

We will almost certainly find out between August 17 - launch day, Cheetahs v Blue Bulls - and the October 27 showpiece.

The key SA Rugby theory is that "every match will be important", as the seven sides each undertake only six fixtures ahead of the still customary, three-game knockout phase.

Whether that will translate to notably rosy takings at Mbombela Stadium when, for example, the Pumas tackle Griquas, remains to be seen.

Then again, there are even Super Rugby matches these days, regardless of host country, where you wonder whether it is worth them taking the padlock off the ice-cream stall's shutter.

But it is also hard to argue against the belief that the traditional big unions will have to be wide awake throughout the itinerary ... every "fumble" in the results column could, indeed, prove costly.

Sport24 colleague Garrin Lambley made the valid point to me that a minnow (yes, a Pumas, a Griquas or a watered-down Cheetahs) might, rightly or wrongly, stand a far better chance now of squeezing their way into a semi-final.

In recent years, there have been instances of unfashionable teams starting like a house on fire in the Currie Cup, but then petering out as injuries and limitations in squad depth take a decisive toll.

Two years ago, for example, when the competition was last played on a single-round basis but with more participating teams (nine), Griquas won four matches on the trot in the early part of the competition but critically faded at the business end to be denied a last-four berth.

With this most short-fire Currie Cup of the post-isolation era, the smaller unions have a better chance of coming into their own to a surprise extent - a bit like the principle of some cricketing nations having a better chance of doing a "David" job on a Goliath, the more condensed the format of the game.

Less enthusiastic, perhaps, will be the bean counters at those less powerful provinces, knowing now that they only have a meagre three matches to host if the knockout phase proves (as it should?) elusive.

Some of the pluses of a tighter competition are fairly obvious: the Currie Cup will no longer have an unhelpful clash with back-end Super Rugby activity (beginning a full two weeks after the final now), and also be deliberately downscaled to a bare minimum or nothing at all on weekends where there are home Springbok Tests in the Rugby Championship.

I also suspect you will hear few grumbles from the vicinity of Bloemfontein about the skinnier tournament, as the Cheetahs weigh up the formidable challenge, all over again, of juggling teams in two major rugby competitions - one involving regular travel to the northern hemisphere.

But perhaps the biggest plus will be the far from insignificantly reduced workload on the still numerous pros in South Africa who ply their trades across both Super Rugby and Currie Cup.

Several fewer Currie Cup obligations in 2018 will allow greater time for rest and conditioning, and hopefully, by association, a diminishing risk of often fatigue-connected serious injuries.

The reduced load might also facilitate, more feasibly, an extension of such events as a Nizaam Carr, for example, taking advantage of a short-term contract in England (he was well-received at Wasps for three months in the SA summer) and not necessarily returning to domestic obligations in the new season quite as knackered as he probably did this time.

You are perfectly entitled to think "cloud" as you chew on the all-new Currie Cup.

But like it or not, room should also be left for a possible silver lining or two.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing