The Currie Cup’s new January kick-off provides a fresh conundrum that’ll test the management acumen of the country’s four franchises, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers have enough challenges as is. South Africa’s “Big Four” have been bleeding money and forced to “fight” among themselves since the Covid pandemic hit in March 2020.
An endless rollercoaster of derbies in eerily empty stadia became the new normal and while it got the ball rolling following the hard lockdown and allowed players to get back onto the park, it did little to elevate the four flagship teams.
This became clear when the Bulls, who dominated the domestic scene in 2021 by securing back-to-back Super Rugby Unlocked and Currie Cup titles and led the way in the local leg of the PRO14 Rainbow Cup, were blown away by Benetton in the final.
The June decider in Treviso was the first overseas assignment for a South African side in over a year and highlighted the plateauing effect the pandemic had had on the local teams. Jake White’s charges, whose sheer dominance made them South African rugby’s schoolyard bullies, were humbled 35-8 by the Dewaldt Duvenage-led Benetton.
Following a third local trophy triumph for the Bulls – the retention of their Currie Cup crown in September – the new United Rugby Championship (URC) finally kicked off later that month and allowed the four franchises to finally travel abroad once again, this time to Europe instead of Australasia, which had been the norm for a quarter of a century.
The underwhelming collective effort from the quartet in their maiden tours showed how challenging the new frontier was and just when it looked like they’d get a chance to turn the corner by hosting their new northern hemisphere rivals on home soil, with their Springboks back to boot, Covid threw another spanner in the works, which meant we’re back to local derbies.
The second phase of South African rugby’s new direction is now on our doorstep, with the realigned season seeing the Currie Cup brought forward from its traditional August start to next weekend. Aside from the opening round, it’ll run concurrently with the URC, leaving the four franchises having to split their resources.
In essence, as far as the leading foursome is concerned, the Currie Cup has gone from once being the crown jewel of South African rugby to being a headache. Not only do they now have to perform a juggling act in terms of playing personnel, but there’s also a greater need for clear and continuous communication and alignment among the growing circle of coaches than ever before.
The workload means there are more cooks in the kitchen, with the franchises naming all-new Currie Cup coaching teams. In Pretoria, the decorated Gert Smal is tasked with spearheading the charge for a three-peat. Etienne Fynn takes the reins in Durban, where he’ll be assisted by fellow former Springbok JP Pietersen, Jerome Paarwater assumes the head coach hot seat at Western Province, flanked by Kabamba Floors and Nazeem Adams, while Mziwakhe Nkosi leads the Lions’ set-up.
These new management teams will be aided by specialists with overlapping roles between the Currie Cup and URC sides. In addition to drawing up the x-s and o-s as a master strategist, White has been a recruitment genius as well and roping in Smal, one of his assistants during the era in which he guided the Springboks to World Cup glory in 2007, is another masterstroke.
That the Bulls have a director of rugby in place gives them an edge, and that that man is a mentor the calibre of White is invaluable. The results speak for themselves. Bringing in a big gun like Smal, a fellow seasoned and world-class coach whose résumé includes a tenure as Ireland assistant coach and director of rugby at Western Province, to head the Currie Cup wing is almost unfair to the rookie coaches (at Currie Cup level) of the other franchises.
Smal’s experience as a well-travelled coach puts the Bulls ahead of the curve. White highlighted this when he announced the appointment in early December, saying, “The competition remains the premier domestic . It has, therefore, been important for us to bring in somebody with vast coaching experience and an understanding of the game to complement the vision of this union.”
Of equal or arguably even more value to the bigger picture of managing the joint mission is the highly successful history the two wise men share at the highest level. On that basis, the Bulls are best equipped to handle the intertwining two-tournament poser, but it’ll be interesting to see each franchise’s approach and who does end up managing the situation the best.