JOHANNESBURG - When the Golden Lions lost to the Western Province last week at Newlands in their Currie Cup semi-final, it hurt.
It hurt because losing always does. It hurt because losing to the WP is never preferable. And it hurt because another chance to lift the Currie Cup had slipped through the grasp of the Lions. And the feeling of exasperation was not compounded by the Lions' loss in the Super Rugby final earlier this year, although that disappointment lingers still in the memory.
No, this distress was of its own making.
Such strong sentiment germinated in the unconsciousness at the age of understanding and so sprouted into awareness when my affinity for the Lions began to bloom. That might sound pretentious to you. It does to me, too, but such is the emotional attachment to the Currie Cup, that it brings up memories, both bitter and joyful, which swirls in a mix of quiet anticipation and great trepidation whenever the Cup begins and reaches its apex.
Oversaturation, a confused understanding of the competition, continued maladministration and a failure to get with the times now threaten the competition's very existence.
And that hurts, too. It seems strange to have the Currie Cup occupy such a space, especially when there is so much love attached to its existence, to the pride of being champions and the despair of losing out at the final hurdle.
You would believe me then, if I told you, I still harbour baggage regarding losing the 2007 final to the Cheetahs after the Lions held a commanding 18 point lead only to lose 20-18, or about the errant boot of Marnitz Boshoff, which left a bagful of points out on the field, which cost the Lions the 2014 final against the WP.
Likewise, the remarkable victory of 2015, when the Lions went through the tournament undefeated, still resonates as it whispered that greater things were yet on the horizon.
There are very few Lions fans who would frown upon their 2011 victory, despite that year’s competition being stripped of any sense of urgency due to the concurring World Cup that year. I suspect WP fans have a similar dispensation when they ponder their 2014 win.
Both occurred after years in the domestic wilderness and the relief to finally lift the trophy, dare I say it, was almost palpable. Equally, one can sense the desperate urgency unions, such as the Blue Bulls, now have to once again drink from that hallowed chalice.
And that says much about the reverence the Currie Cup is still held in, even though the rugby landscape has changed into an altogether different lay since the cup was first awarded in 1891. Then Griqualand West held aloft the trophy. That year, a touring team from the British Isles - undefeated - decreed that the Kimberley-based team had impressed the most and were worthy of the cup. There are suggestions that the selection had more to do with politics than sporting excellence but nevertheless, 126 years later, the traditions and culture infused by the Currie Cup into South Africa is undeniable. It is ingrained.
And yet, SA rugby sits with a huge conundrum on its hands: What to do with the Currie Cup? Such has become the congested nature of the rugby calendar, that the oldest domestic rugby competition in the world is finding it difficult to adapt and keep its relevance. And that is a sad thought when one considers the spectrum of emotions the cup has given South Africans, the fledgeling talents that it has unearthed, the heroic legends it has created, the myths of greatness it has ensconced, the veneration of players and teams it still promotes through debates between rugby loremasters and young seers in the bar, around the braai or in front of the telly.
Several solutions have been proposed to resuscitate the failing core of SA rugby, with Saru apparently favouring a reduction in matches from next season to help the competition maintain an above average standard and slot it in between Super Rugby, the Pro14 and Rugby Championship more comfortably.
It is clear something must be done, lest our rugby lose out on a prized tradition that has shaped emotions and instilled so much passion.
It would be a bleak day in rugby history indeed if we continue to ignore the Currie Cup and fail to save it.
As for tomorrow’s final, one can only hope the Sharks lift the trophy. Why? Because emotionally, having any side but the WP lift the title is always preferable.