Currie Cup's rough diamonds

The power brokers of Sanzar (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia Rugby) would like South Africa to end its affair with the Currie Cup. But the oldest (and arguably the best) provincial competition in the world refuses to go away.

So it is that although the Tri-Nations resumes this weekend, the absence of the Springboks, who have another week to rest, means that the Currie Cup gets a week in the spotlight.

As it happens, this week’s fixtures mark the end of the first round, the halfway point of the competition. There have been a few upsets and some fallings from grace, but few would have predicted that at this stage of the season the Sharks would be playing Griquas in Durban to decide which team enters the second round at the top of the log.

The Sharks are the defending champions and should not have been written off, but in providing 10 players to the Springbok squad questions were clearly going to be asked of the depth of talent available to coach John Plumtree.
The Sharks lost their opening game against Western Province at Newlands and, to add injury to insult, their captain, Johan Muller, broke his arm.

But, subsequently, the Sharks have won five in a row and Plumtree has been able to blood some exciting youngsters. Principal among these are the 19-year-old Cronjé twins, Guy and Ross. They are nominally flyhalf and scrumhalf, but while playing schoolboy rugby for Michaelhouse they began the confusing tactic of exchanging roles, depending on which one made it to the breakdown first.

This led to the oft-repeated touchline observation: “That Cronjé kid is everywhere!”

It must have helped the Cronjé‘s immensely to play regularly alongside the 35-year-old Albert van den Berg. In last week’s win against the Lions in Johannesburg Van den Berg was simply immense, popping up several times in the move that created what could turn out to be the try of the season for Ryan Kankowski. It is just more than 15 years since Van den Berg made his first-class debut for Vaal Triangle. The Cronjé twins were not long out of nappies back then.

Two years later Van den Berg made his debut for Griquas and was part of the last great period for the Kimberley-based side, under the coaching of Andre Markgraaff in the late 1990s. Dawie Theron, the Griquas coach today, was the tighthead prop and cornerstone of the pack in those days and helped an immensely talented back row ruin a succession of afternoons for other provincial sides.

The likes of Philip Smit, Luther Bakkes, Theo Oosthuizen and Gideon Watts helped re-establish Hoffe Park (as it then was) as the ground that none of the big-five unions wanted to visit. There was talent behind the scrum, too, with Springboks in Franco Smith, Gaffie du Toit, Edrich Lubbe and Boeta Wessels.

Van den Berg played 55 games for Griquas before moving to the Sharks and his departure at the end of the 1999 season marked the break-up of a great generation. A decade later Theron’s team has made its mark with five successive wins followed by a 25-24 defeat to the Blue Bulls, a result owing something to the refereeing of Willie Roos.

Griquas were leading 24-13 in front of a doting home crowd when the Bulls began their comeback. Gerhard van den Heever scored for the Bulls to narrow the gap to six points and with five minutes remaining Roos altered the balance of the game by sin-binning two Griquas. Against 13 men the Bulls got the necessary converted try and a face full of brandy and coke greeted Roos as he left the field.

Significantly, the two players yellow-carded were Rohan Kitshoff and Jonathan Mokuena, two back-rowers who have been identified by opposition coaches as the twin architects of Griquas’ surge to the top of the table.

Kitshoff is a fetcher in the mould of Heinrich Brussow, standing just 1,81m tall, whereas Mokuena is a former captain of the Springbok sevens team who possesses the exceptional handling skills and speed off the mark promoted by the short form of the game.

What the pair specialise in, according to opponents, is cheating. Roos binned both for repeated team infringements against the Bulls as Griquas clung desperately to the lead and an unbeaten record.

But cheating, rather like love, is in the eye of the beholder and more often than not in the modern game the successful flanker is the one who gets away with the most larceny.

Many will assume that Griquas owe their lofty position to the absence of the Springboks. But the national players will not be available to their provinces for another month, by which time there will be just four rounds of log play remaining, so Theron and his men would be fully justified in saying: “So what?”