The Currie Cup still has significance and prestige to every South African rugby player and there is a defence to be made for the lack of defence in the 2021 edition, writes Mark Keohane.
The country’s two best teams, the Vodacom Bulls and Sharks, will contest Saturday’s final in Pretoria, which will be a repeat of the 2020 final, which was played in January, 2021 because of Covid enforced schedules.
The Bulls won 26-19 but all indications are Saturday’s final will be a higher scoring game.
The Bulls have won 21 successive matches at Loftus under Jake White, while Sean Everitt’s Sharks have been one side to trouble the Bulls in the saturated domestic match-ups in Super Rugby Unlocked, the Rainbow Cup and in the Currie Cup, both last season and in this season.
Saturday’s final will be worthy of a final because it is no guarantee that the Bulls will win. The Sharks have the capacity to upstage the hosts, even though the Bulls will start as favourites. This will be a tough battle.
There is no home crowd because of the continued Covid-dictated absence of fans at sports stadia in South Africa, but the familiarity will most definitely be with the Bulls. It is their home field, their home change room and they will prepare for the final in the comforts of home.
What kind of intensity will we see given the basketball type-scores all competition?
I’ve tried to make sense of the Currie Cup matches this season and they have been decidedly different from last season, when scores were closer and the games seemed more defence oriented.
One theory is that the breakdown seems quicker and that there is zero tolerance on the tackler.
I’d be interested in the views of the many analysts out there.
It can’t be a case of South African players not wanting to tackle. The Springboks are the most defensively astute team currently in world rugby and the Bok coach Jacques Nienaber is a defensive coach specialist.
Is it the nature of the competition or the referee interpretation or have the players become so accustomed to each other after two seasons of continuous derby matches?
I don’t have an answer.
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Bulls coach White isn’t stressing too much that huge scores have been conceded by the Bulls in the competition because when the Bulls have leaked plenty, they’ve scored more than they have conceded.
White’s teams traditionally have been very defence orientated in their approach, but the 2021 Bulls have been very attack focused.
They let in 33 points against Griquas but scored 56. They conceded 36 against the Cheetahs but scored 39 and even in scoring 48 points in the semi-final win against Western Province they coughed up 31 points.
White also doesn’t see red flags because of so many high scores in the competition. He said domestic competitions in all countries were producing big match tallies.
White told Sport24’s Heinz Schenk that it was a matter of context and he believed high scoring games would be the norm in the United Rugby Championship, especially for those matches played in South Africa during the summer.
‘I suppose one can say this type of attacking rugby isn’t going to be appropriate in the northern hemisphere, where a specific style is usually in place,’ said White. ‘But one also has to remember that those URC sides are also coming to Loftus or Ellis Park for the first time and, importantly, in the summer months as well.
‘That changes the complexion of the competition completely. I can’t see 13-12 scorelines in contests where teams aren’t moving the ball around. Conditions differ here from there in the period of competition.’
White also believed the high-scoring matches improved the skill level of the players and that it was about finding the balance in being ambitious but also realistic in when to apply ambition.
‘I don’t want us to go into our shells now. Obviously, there’s work to be done on defence and tighten up. Context is also important, you don’t want to concede tries from lost scoring opportunities yourself.
‘We need to find some structure without becoming unambitious because then we’re going to struggle with gaining an advantage over the European teams when they come here. But we will be pragmatic. If it’s pelting down with rain in Glasgow, you’re going to have to pick different players and play differently perhaps too.’
White said his experience of the 2020 and 2021 Currie Cup competition was that the teams were very young and that a level of maturity had been lost because of the absence of the current Springboks and also the exodus of experienced players to overseas clubs.
It is one of the reasons he has focused on bringing back several veterans to compliment his emerging talent.
The Bulls coach also defended the integrity of the Currie Cup and what it still means to South African players.
He singled out Duane Vermeulen’s motivation to lead the Bulls to victory in the 2020 Currie Cup final, which was played in January, 2021.
‘Duane had won a World Cup with the Springboks, but he lacked for nothing in appetite when it came to his desire to win the Currie Cup. The tournament will always be special in South Africa.’ – Jake White
The Bulls, should they be successful against the Sharks, will win the Currie Cup title for a 25th time. They would also be the first team in the competition’s history, which dates more than 100 years, to be crowned champions twice in one calendar year.