You have to back the Sharks
They used to say the silly season was the period building up to the start of the new rugby year, back in the days when rugby players stopped playing at the start of October and then began their training again in late January building up to an April kick-off.
Now that the off-season hardly exists, you could say that the period we are in now is the silly season. The Castle Rugby Championship is behind us, the end of year tour lies before the Springboks, and while the Currie Cup season is being finished through a series of playoff games, much of the talk is about who is moving where for next year, and who is going to actually retain their health and fitness through the survival course.
Four players who were part of Heyneke Meyer’s Castle Championship squad won’t be playing domestic rugby this weekend because of injury -- national captain Jean de Villiers, reserve prop Coenie Oosthuizen, reserve hooker Tiaan Liebenberg and lock Andries Bekker. Three of those definitely won’t be available for the tour, and neither will flyhalf Johan Goosen, who was injured playing for the Boks.
Fortunately so far no-one during this period has been ruled out of next year’s Super Rugby, something that will please those franchise coaches who double as Currie Cup coaches, for after all, and understandably so, they only really care about their own jobs and don’t really give much thought to what the national coach might want. You can blame the South African system for that.
But with two bruising rounds to go it could still happen, and if it doesn’t happen now it could still happen on the overseas tour, so there should be a lot of collective holding of breath for those who would like to see everyone start the 2013 Super Rugby season at full muster.
The Sharks were a team that didn’t quite manage that this past Super Rugby season, and it probably ultimately cost them the title as they started with two narrow defeats in derbies that prevented them from playing the knockout fixtures at home. They were always playing catch-up after those early losses.
If they don’t get it right in 2013 though it won’t be coach John Plumtree’s fault, for he is the one franchise coach who appears to be selecting in such a way that he ensures his players are protected and given optimum chance of both being fit to tour and to start next year.
Of course it won’t just be about player management for Plumtree, for he is also a coach who learns his lessons, and last year’s Currie Cup final defeat to the Lions, where it was felt the team coached by John Mitchell profited from the advantage of continuity, probably hasn’t been forgotten.
Better then to integrate the national players slowly rather than rush them back.
Some of the silliness of this time of year revolves around us starting a different phase of Currie Cup competition that is, in a sense, almost like a whole separate tournament from the one that went before for some teams.
That was certainly the case for Western Province last week, who started what was essentially a knockout phase with a completely new team.
They were highly impressive in the way they destroyed the Cheetahs, but as they have not played together that much recently and haven’t been a settled Currie Cup combination through the season, it does make it harder to predict what they will do in the playoffs.
They have also lost three of those Boks since last week, which means that by accident their semifinal against the Lions has been given some much needed relevance in that at least Scarra Ntubeni and Marcel Brache will benefit from the experience of starting in the big match atmosphere that comes with a semifinal. Surely the development of these young players and offering them such experience is what the Currie Cup these days is about, and if the WP coach Allister Coetzee says now that he trusts both of them, perhaps he could have shown that trust last week?
Unless there is one of those old Sharks ruses of naming a different team to the one that runs out onto the field under way, Plumtree has shown trust and faith in the players that have got his team this far, and it is why they should be both the sentimental and the logical choice to win their seventh Currie Cup title.
They have added their Boks without too much disruption to the team that has picked up impressive recent form, and they have loaded their bench in such a way that it could dramatically swing their semifinal against the Bulls their way if it is close in the second half. It’s a win-win situation for everyone, and while there is always the chance it could backfire, at least if it does fail Plumtree has shown the faith in his newcomers, and that should stand him in good stead for what matters, which is next year’s Super Rugby.
Having won two Currie Cups in the past four years and then following up with mediocre Super Rugby campaigns he should know better than anyone, though the Lions should of course know it too, that winning the domestic title doesn’t necessarily translate into a boost to your hopes in the Sanzar competition.
And just to cap all the silliness of this silly season, let not the weekend of semifinal action go off without the promotion-relegation game being played on Friday night being unremarked on. The Currie Cup champions, the Lions, are in with a good chance of making their second consecutive final, but came last in Super Rugby, and will drop out of the competition.
Conversely, while it is unlikely that they will lose on Friday, the Cheetahs’ fate in next year’s Super Rugby is secure, but their Currie Cup status isn’t. It rather reminds one of the words of an old song scripted by Four Jacks and a Jill -- “It’s a strange, strange world, we live in, Master Jack…”
(All times are CAT, SA, GMT+2)
Currie Cup promotion-relegation – Friday
Toyota Free State Cheetahs v EP Kings Bloemfontein 7pm
Currie Cup semifinals (both Saturday)
Sharks v Vodacom Blue Bulls Durban 4:30pm
MTN Golden Lions v DHL Western Province Johannesburg 7pm