The year the Lions roared once more
Warren Brosnihan made a little faux pas during a Currie Cup match in Kimberley that may aptly have summed up what the premier domestic competition was in a World Cup year and what it will become now that the Sanzar tournaments so completely dominate the calendar.
The former Springbok flank, now working as a SuperSport commentator, in lauding Western Province for their excellent win over Griquas described them as the WP under-21 team. Warren quickly corrected his mistake, but had he stuck with his original line, it might still have been harsh to accuse him of inaccuracy.
The WP side, with the Springboks away at the World Cup, was largely a Province junior team, and with several injuries also factored onto the absences caused by national call-ups, the Cape team did well to make the semifinals. The Blue Bulls, who were just edged out, are busy with a rebuilding phase, and their rare absence from the playoffs was also no train smash.
In a World Cup year you would expect the Lions and the Cheetahs to dominate the Currie Cup, as they did in the last World Cup year of 2007, when they met in the final in Bloemfontein. The Lions lived up to their pre-tournament billing as favourites by winning the competition, and their excellent win over the Sharks in the final was as close to rugby perfection as we saw in the domestic season.
Indeed, the Lions will probably feel they benefitted from the questionable decision by both WP and the Sharks to field their Springboks in the playoff games after the national side’s premature exit from the World Cup.
The reason it was questionable was because both unions knew that this was a season they should have been using to widen their net of players ready to graduate to Super Rugby level. If the back-up players were good enough to get them to the semifinals they were surely also good enough to play in the semifinals. What would Bismarck du Plessis or Schalk Burger have gained from playing in a playoff game when they were involved in a World Cup quarterfinal just two weeks earlier?
Why the Lions benefitted though was because the Sharks and WP being seen to be at full strength authenticated their win and gave some gravitas to the achievement that might otherwise not have been there. However, Lions captain Josh Strauss, in a post-match interview, was realistic enough to recognise that continuity had been his team’s biggest ally against sides that simply hadn’t played together enough.
The Lions side that won the Currie Cup was largely the same one that was competitive in most games in Super Rugby without quite making the breakthrough until much later in the tournament. With financial considerations forcing the size of the Johannesburg union’s squad to be cut, it is going to be interesting to see whether they have the depth necessary to sustain their recent growth into the next Super Rugby season.
That though is a problem for the future – right now the Lions should just feel satisfied that they have managed to put a meaningful trophy into their cabinet at Coca-Cola Park for the first time since 1999, when they also won an under-strength Currie Cup played in a World Cup year.
There is no denying the significant growth spurt they have experienced since John Mitchell took over as coach, although previous coach Dick Muir deserves more credit than most are prepared to give him, both for starting the ball rolling with the current group of Lions players and for having the wisdom to recruit Mitchell. Indeed, as Muir is also responsible for John Plumtree’s presence in the country, South African rugby does owe him a thank you.
Plumtree remember won the Currie Cup last year with the Sharks, and in 2008, and in retrospect he did well to take his team to a third appearance in a final in the space of four years during an under-strength season. Ending second, ahead of the Cheetahs, on the overall log was an achievement considering how many Sharks players were out both to injury and to Bok commitments.
While his team was well beaten in the decider, he and his fellow coaches should have learned from the mistake of changing the team through the reintroduction of the Boks for the playoff games. His leading players would have learned a great deal from the responsibility that was thrust on them at a time when the playing group is undergoing a cultural change, with Keegan Daniel impressing Plumtree with his captaincy.
WP, considering they fielded an under-21 team for a significant part of the season, can possibly feel they gained the most out of the competition this year, though much will depend on how quickly some of those young players recover from injuries sustained during the domestic season. In particular a lot is being expected of the young props, Stephen Kistchoff and Frans Malherbe.
The Bulls started awfully when the selection of a second string Springbok squad for the Tri-Nations tour robbed them of key forwards, but then gathered momentum when those players returned. They were ultimately unlucky to only just miss out on a semifinal place, while it was another case of so near and yet so far for Griquas, who were challenging for a place in the top four during the early months before fading once injuries started to make themselves felt.