JOHANNESBURG - The 2017 edition of the Currie Cup concluded on Saturday with Western Province emerging as champions after downing the Sharks in the final in Durban. Here, rugby writer Jacques van der Westhuyzen wraps up the competition by highlighting the good, the bad and the ugly of the last few months.
Youngsters to the fore: For many reasons there was an opportunity for several young stars to get a chance and how they grabbed their opportunity. Some, like Warrick Gelant (22) and Damian Willemse (19), had already shown us what they are capable of in Super Rugby, but they continued that good form in the Currie Cup, while other young stars of the future - such as Golden Lions players Aphiwe Dyantyi (20) and Marco Janse van Vuren (21) - prospered.
Attacking intent: The defence coaches won’t have liked what went on over the course of the competition but at the end of the day what fans want to see is tries being scored, and the more the better. And there were plenty. In total the seven teams scored a combined 378 tries, many of them truly spectacular efforts. Well done to the coaches and players for trying to implement an attack-minded game, keeping ball in hand and using the whole width of the field.
Competitiveness: It wouldn’t be quite right to suggest it was strength versus strength but with so many Super Rugby players missing, all the teams were fairly evenly matched and that made for some tight, compelling matches. The Pumas and Griquas, who finished sixth and seventh on the standings respectively, won four games each and were not far off from playing in the semi-finals. They scared a few teams, beat a few others and gave as good as they got from the so-called big boys.
Refereeing: Several Super Rugby coaches made it pertinently clear that they were not happy with the standard of refereeing in that competition and things didn’t get much better in the Currie Cup. The coaches aren’t allowed to discuss the officiating or officials - why, I don’t know. The truth is the refereeing wasn’t great.
Lack of interest: Phew, it took a while for the competition to get going this year. Super Rugby now appears to be the be-all-and-end-all for rugby fans, especially the new ones. It doesn’t help that some of South Africa's top players don’t give a jot about it anymore; the only time it really got exciting - and people were interested - was when the semi-finals came around.
Defence gone missing: For all the wonderful attacking rugby we saw, and all the great tries that were scored, not too much attention was given to defence; until possibly the latter stages of the competition. Bar the semis and final, the seven teams conceded a whopping 284 tries between them in the regular season, with many matches high-scoring affairs. Is this what we want to see in the best and strongest domestic competition?
Empty stadiums: This goes hand in hand with the lack of interest shown in the competition by the fans. SA has some of the best rugby stadiums in the world and seeing row upon row of seats, rather than fans bunched up next to one another is, and was, a sore sight. Several matches had only a few thousand fans in the stands and one has got to wonder whether it’s not better to play certain games at smaller, more intimate venues.
Structure and timing: Something’s got to be done about the structure and timing of the competition. It didn’t help the Lions one bit that the Currie Cup started when they were still involved in the Super Rugby playoffs, while the Free State Cheetahs - because they joined the PRO14 - had to split their squad between two competitions. What a shocker. Also, at one stage some teams were asked to play three matches in a week; that’s just not on.
Lack of transformation: Some teams ticked the “transformation box” better than others when it came to opportunities for black players, but what was glaring is the fact not one of the seven teams was coached by a black coach. There may be the odd assistant, but really, this is a competition where promising young black coaches could surely benefit from having a go against good opposition. It is quite unbelievable that this is an issue that is still being discussed.