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18 Oct 2013 00:00
Frans Steyn is back for the Sharks at centre after recovering from a serious injury. (Gallo)
After 10 weeks of log action, the Currie Cup has reached its knockout stage. It began in the second week of August and, for a few weeks, the close margins of every game suggested that strength against strength was the way to go.
It seems like a good model: six teams playing each other at home and away and everything done and dusted in three months – short enough to retain the attention and long enough to allow the Springboks back for the final month.
But in the cold light of day it seems a lot of trouble to go to just to eliminate two teams.
On Saturday, the Currie Cup semifinals take place in Durban and Cape Town.
Western Province are the defending champions and have gone through the log phase unbeaten.
The Sharks have lost three out of 10, but came within two missed penalty goals against WP of topping the log anyway. They too will feel that Saturday's game against the Cheetahs is a far larger banana skin than it needed to be.
A few weeks ago, the South African Rugby Union (Saru) opted not to expand the premier division from six teams to eight. It reasoned, probably correctly, that the congested domestic season could not afford to devote an extra month to the Currie Cup. One of the suggestions tabled before Saru was to go back to the structure used in the mid-1990s, with 14 teams made up of the six premier-division and eight first-division sides. Assuming that everyone plays everyone else, you save a week in comparison with the eight-team structure, but that's about the only positive.
All three models – six, eight and 14 – have been tried in the past 15 years, and a succession of one-sided games against the likes of the Leopards and the Griffons was one of the compelling reasons to keep things simple. So we are left with a system that theoretically allows a side that has won less than half its matches to become Currie Cup champions.
The only premier division team without a game this weekend is the Bulls, who finished fifth, nine points off the pace required to contest a semifinal. They were six points better than the Griquas, though, and the latter will play the Pumas on Friday night in the first of a two-leg promotion/relegation contest. Those games offer the only chance of something new in next year's tournament, and it is likely that Friday night's contest will be a good deal more diverting than the two semifinals.
Were it not for the demands of television, there would be no need for semifinals in a six-team league. Ten weeks has been more than enough time to determine that WP and the Sharks are the two best sides and, by going unbeaten, the former thoroughly deserve to host the final. But it is what it is and the coaches have to get on with it.
Intriguingly, the brains trust at the Sharks has come up with a bolt out of the blue for Saturday by picking Frans Steyn in the centre. Assistant coach Brad McLeod-Henderson says Steyn has been training well after completing rehab on a knee injury sustained back in May. So the returning Springbok replaces young Heimar Williams at inside centre for the match against the Cheetahs.
The long and winding road of the Sharks season is epitomised by this throw of the dice. Steyn rejoined the Sharks after three years in France and was expected to be a trump card in their Super Rugby campaign. But it seemed from his physique that Steyn had spent too much time tasting the delights of French cuisine and too little in the gym. He was slow and lacklustre, a pale shadow of the electrifying figure he cut at the 2007 World Cup.
With squad captain Keegan Daniel laid low by injury, though, coach John Plumtree took the bold step of handing the armband to Steyn. It was a calculated gamble aimed at reminding Steyn of his responsibilities but it was an unmitigated disaster. Five months later, Steyn returns to a Sharks setup minus the badly treated Plumtree, and finds himself lauded as a player with "the X factor". You couldn't make it up.
It is, of course, more than likely that the Sharks will overcome the Cheetahs and travel to Cape Town for next week's final. The Cheetahs are paying the price for their extraordinary season in Super Rugby. A small squad has been stretched too thin for too long.
By contrast, the Lions will take to the field at Newlands full of hope and having played many fewer games than everyone else owing to their nonparticipation in Super Rugby. They won just four games in log play and, man for man, Johan Ackermann's team should not have a chance, but knockout games are funny beasts.
In the event that a major upset occurs, expect a belated call for a review of the Currie Cup structure.
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