Semifinal construct takes the kick out of Currie Cup log
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the devil is in the detail. Strength against strength in the Currie Cup has produced a three-month competition involving just six teams and, as a result, every match is important. However, the decision to play semifinals as well as a final has neutralised much of the foregoing log play.
What it means is that 10 matches have been played by each side with the intention of eliminating just two of them. The teams that have made most of the running this season, the Lions and the Sharks, have earned home advantage, but they could conceivably be eliminated by opponents who, with one week of log play remaining, face the prospect of finishing last.
It has been argued that both the Blue Bulls and Western Province were unfairly handicapped by providing large numbers of their first-choice side to the Springboks. Last week, when those players returned to provincial action, it must have seemed to their supporters akin to watching the cavalry coming over the hill in a John Ford western.
It certainly made a material difference as each side earned a handsome win, thereby eliminating Griquas from the semifinal mix and relegating the Cheetahs to the promotion-relegation match with the EP Kings. But here is the point: if the Currie Cup semifinals had not been part of the mix, neither result would have counted.
With one round to go the Lions and Sharks were so far ahead of the chasing quartet that they could not be caught. The Sharks had the carrot of a possible home final by topping the log and their demolition job on Griquas vindicated the decision by Lions coach Johan Ackermann to select a weakened side to face the Bulls in Johannesburg.
Very different side
Western Province were in a must-win scenario against the Cheetahs, but if there were no semifinals the Blue Bulls may have selected a very different side to the one that put 50 points on the Lions. The consequence of that would have been that a whole group of overburdened Springboks would have enjoyed a month-long break between the final match of the Rugby Championship and the first match of the end-of-season tour.
Semifinals are a recent construct, added to the season because of the insatiable demands of television and the need for extra paydays at the turnstiles for unions with hungry contracts to feed. But in a six-team contest they are surely an anomaly, especially when the effect of removing them would be so beneficial to the national side. It is a nettle that the South African Rugby Union (Saru) needs to grasp in a more immediate manner than it managed in the Kings affair.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, this week's matches are a mouth-watering prospect. On Saturday there is nothing to choose between the four semifinalists.
The first leg of the play-off between the Cheetahs and the Kings is in Bloemfontein on Friday night. The second leg is in Port Elizabeth next week and the winner will be decided by the cumulative points of the two games.
It is a life-changing contest for both sides. The Kings are already guaranteed Super Rugby participation next year, but for it to be sustainable they need to earn a place at the top table in the Currie Cup. It would make a material difference to the calibre of player they might entice to join them and would ensure year-round high-level competition.
The team that plays this week will be only remotely related to the one that runs out at the beginning of February. A number of high-profile signings have been made – some announced, some still under wraps – but those players will only join the franchise in the new year.
So the team that tops the log in the Currie Cup first division will be the one that engages with the Cheetahs.
Logic suggests that the Kings should not be good enough to trouble the Cheetahs, but these are not logical times.
The Cheetahs excelled under the critical eye of Rassie Erasmus in the mid- to late-2000s, but under Naka Drotske and Os du Randt they have battled since then at both extremes of the South African season.
The traditional end-of-year departure of players to wealthier clubs and provinces is happening again this year, but the equally traditional filling of gaps with outstanding youngsters is not. There are exceptions: wing Raymond Rhule should be a Springbok by the end of the month and Lappies Labuschagné is another in the production line of quality back rows emanating from Bloemfontein. Elsewhere, however, the cupboard is bare.
The Cheetahs are wounded and this could be the moment when they are superseded by a hungrier member of the food chain. If so, there is understandable concern at the union that they might stay down in the first division for more than the mandatory one season.
That is if Saru does not move the goal posts again, of course.