Full marks for bravery
I was not at Newlands when Western Province buried the Bulls this past Saturday. What I saw of the Cape Town game was what I picked up on the television in the conference room of the Kings Park press box, and as the Cheetahs and Sharks coaches came in to speak to the media in that time, I can’t claim to have given the entire game my undivided attention.
What was I doing in Durban when there was such an important game at Newlands? Well the truth didn’t lie in my chirp to John Plumtree when he asked me that very question – “I want to finally get to see some tries!” It would have invited huge dollops of egg to land on my face if it was true for it just happened to coincide with the first day in the entire year that the Cape’s premier team landed a four-try bonus point.
Believe it or not, I am from Durban. It was where I was brought up on bunny chows and Perks Pies. Watching Natal play farmers and miners from the country district unions in the old B Section of the Currie Cup formed part of my rather dubious rugby education. So when I was invited to do some speaking engagements in Durban last week I found an excuse to stay over till the weekend and visit a stadium that used to be my second home.
It’s why I was giggling a couple of weeks ago when colleague Brenden Nel and I hosted a Q & A and I was accused of being anti-Sharks. Brenden, who knows that my favourite sporting memory was watching Natal win the Currie Cup in 1990, something he would prefer me to forget, even phoned ahead of the Q & A and said “You won’t believe it, there are actually people who think you hate the Sharks”.
Anyway, back to the point in hand. The WP win should have satisfied the wish of Plumtree, for in a conversation after the Cheetahs game he spoke about how important it was for all the coaches in the Currie Cup to buy into attacking rugby in an attempt to sell the competition. His team and the Cheetahs had just been involved in a thriller, but it was watched by fewer spectators than used to come out to watch Natal play Griquas in those dark days in the B Section.
The poor turn-out shouldn’t really have been surprising. A cold blustery wind had followed my flight up from Cape Town, it rained in the morning, and during the speaking engagements in Durban the one point that kept being made by people was that they felt a bit bored with rugby.
That such an attitude should be expressed in Durban should be concerning, because the Sharks have played some astounding and exhilarating rugby in the past few months, and it begs the question: if you’re not happy with that, what are you going to be happy with?
The reality though is that the Currie Cup these days is played almost entirely under-strength, and it takes a while for the punters to warm to the new names that have replaced the stars in the teams they support. The Currie Cup is also a considerable level lower than Super Rugby – ask the Lions, who won the domestic competition last year but drown in Super Rugby.
Which is the point that may need to be made to WP fans who think the win over the Bulls was an indication that their team can go into Super Rugby next year looking to run opponents off their feet. Make no mistake, Saturday was a good start, but there is no comparison between the defensive systems that are encountered in Super Rugby and those you come up against in the Currie Cup.
Moreover, I was able to watch the second half of the Newlands game in its entirety, and what struck me wasn’t so much the running of WP, but how completely dominant the Province forwards were. Every aspect of the forward battle was won by WP, and you got the impression at times that when they drove they could do so knowing they were almost unstoppable. It was really that aspect of that game that won them the match (admittedly only according to what I saw of it).
It is a good thing for WP/Stormers forwards coach Matt Proudfoot to work towards, but how often will the Stormers' pack be able to present such comfortable front-foot ball to the backs in Super Rugby?
Last year they did it on occasion, and they do have young forwards who will mature through time, but the point is that Super Rugby, which is the pinnacle of rugby beneath test level these days, is a big step up.
The Sharks won against the Cheetahs with a pack that was without five first-choice Springboks, and the Bulls also had significant players missing at Newlands, as did Province.
So yes, WP fans have a reason to smile at last. But don’t get carried away – the Lions of last year and the Sharks of 2010 should be an example to everyone that momentum picked up in the Currie Cup does not necessarily get carried into the following year’s Super Rugby tournament.
There are officials and fans though who still think that coaches should be hired and fired on Currie Cup results, and there was way too much negativity in the Cape when they slipped to two losses from three starts, so full marks to Allister Coetzee for being brave enough to use the Currie Cup for what it should be – an opportunity to try new things.