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Relegation game shouldn’t be happening

The promotion-relegation game between the Cheetahs and the Eastern Province Kings will add intrigue to what is otherwise a Currie Cup semifinal weekend, but it really shouldn’t be happening.

That is not a defence of the Cheetahs, who as one of the few Super Rugby provinces that actually appears to recruit for Currie Cup rather than for the bigger competition shouldn’t be coming last. My money was on them finishing near the top, and as they don’t lose as many Springboks as some of the other unions, that is where they should have ended up.

In EP’s case it is also good to see that they are putting a bit of the money where the mouth is by winning Division One and thus putting themselves in line for promotion. They were deserved winners of their section and if that signified that promotion to Super Rugby has accelerated interest among fans and increased the motivation of players in the Eastern Cape, then that is a good thing.

But promotion-relegation shouldn’t be happening for two reasons. Firstly, it doesn’t seem fair to have a promotion-relegation system in place when the competition is played mostly under-strength. Maybe the Cheetahs are not a good example to use here, for they don’t have that many Boks. The Bulls, had they ended last, would have been a better one.

The Bulls would not have been relegation threatened this season had they had all their top players playing for them rather than away on Castle Rugby Championship duty. They proved that when they so comprehensively outplayed the Lions the other night when they were back at full strength.

EP, because they are in a different division, don’t supply Springboks, so they go into a promotion-relegation fixture with pretty much the same team they have had all season. By contrast their opponents, in a manner of speaking, would have been penalised for having provided players to the national cause.

Is that fair? Somehow I don’t think so, and even the Cheetahs, with their fewer Boks, are being penalised. They would have had the services of two star players, Coenie Oosthuizen and Johan Goosen, for the promotion-relegation game, had it not been for the wear and tear those players picked up playing international rugby.

You may well ask then how I propose to get around this, as EP do deserve some sort of carrot? But that cues my second reason why the promotion-relegation game shouldn’t be happening, which is that now that the Currie Cup has been relegated in importance by the length of the Sanzar season, it should return to a 14 team format.

Those who argued so long and hard for the introduction of a strength-versus-strength format will choke on whatever they are eating at such a suggestion, and I was one of those who argued that point in the past. But that was at a time when the Super 12 or Super 14, as the Sanzar competition was then known, ended in the last week of May, and the Tri-Nations ended in the first week of September.

Back then the top provinces or franchises only played each other in one Super derby per season. There was a window open after the Tri-Nations. So it was so much easier to absorb Springboks back into the Currie Cup system after their Springbok commitments were complete, and apart from the knockout fixtures, they could play a good few league games.

That has changed now. The provinces, or franchises, play each other twice during Super Rugby, which satisfies the thirst for derby matches, and the Super Rugby also ends in August, after which begins the Rugby Championship, which only ends in October.

So, it is a fact that there just isn’t time for Boks to be properly absorbed into the competition, something which is not going to change as long as the Aussies get their way with the ridiculously long and congested Sanzar season. And while the Currie Cup games this season have been interesting and competitive, the fans have voted with their feet against under-strength rugby.

So if there is no mass appeal in the big centres anyway, and some provincial chief executives have admitted they actually operate at a loss when they open their stadiums for some Currie Cup games, isn’t the domestic competition the opportunity to bring in the so-called country unions and give them something to play for?

By shortening the Vodacom Cup and starting the Currie Cup towards the end of Super Rugby we could easily fit in a 14 team competition that will give the cash-strapped smaller unions a much needed place at a bigger table.

If WP and the Sharks make it into the Currie Cup final it will be the sixth time they have played each other across the two major competitions this season. That is just too much and it speaks against any need for the Currie Cup to be played strength versus strength.

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