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Stephen Nell is a rugby writer based in Cape Town and works primarily for the Die Burger newspaper. He has been contributing to ESPNscrum since 2005.
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What is the future for the Currie Cup?
Stephen Nell
August 4, 2011
The Sharks' Willem Alberts embraces the Currie Cup, Natal Sharks v Western Province, Currie Cup Final, Absa Stadium, Durban, South Africa, October 30, 2010
The Sharks' Willem Alberts embraces the Currie Cup after his side's victory over Western Province in last year's finale © Getty Images
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When one considers the performances by the Springboks on their recent Tri-Nations tour, one could easily draw the conclusion that South African rugby has bigger problems than the structure of its domestic Currie Cup competition to deal with.

However, it wasn't Peter de Villiers's first-choice line-up that did duty in New Zealand and Australia, so hardly the end of the world that a Bok 'B-side' lost. Let's talk after we've added Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger, Fourie du Preez, Jean de Villiers, Jacque Fourie and Bismarck du Plessis to the mix.

When you consider who was missing on tour, you may understand why I believe there are more pressing issues in South African rugby - in particular, what the Currie Cup will look like from next year.

The problem with the Currie Cup is that South African rugby bosses have struggled to decide on a future format. South Africa hold all the economic aces in the SANZAR-alliance, but were somehow out-manoeuvred at the negotiating table and the end-result is the current Australia-friendly Super Rugby format that in a non Rugby World Cup-year will stretch into the first week of August.

That will in future leave 10 weeks for league games in the Currie Cup, with a semi-final and final before the Springboks embark on their end-of-season tour.

Why is the Currie Cup so important? Well, apart from being a huge part of South African rugby's heritage, it brings in huge amounts of broadcast revenue - only fractionally less than Super Rugby. It is therefore essential to the overall well-being of South African rugby.

At present it's played in an eight-team Premier League and six-team First Division. The changes in SANZAR have led most rugby people in South Africa to the conclusion that a reduction to a six-team strength-versus-strength Premier League is a logical step that will enhance the Currie Cup. Sponsors Absa and broadcasters SuperSport also favour this. In fact, this was the way that had been plotted forward.

However, a recent brainstorming session on the matter between the country's 14 rugby unions led to a deadlock on the issue.

 
"The unions that probably stand to lose the most in the event of the competition shedding two teams from the Premier League are the Leopards and Pumas."
 

The South African Rugby Union sent out a statement on June 30 this year to say that its General Council - where all the provinces are represented - have final say over the format of the competition. The General Council is now due to meet on August 11.

What has happened in the interim is that a compromise proposal has been born and submitted to the Competitions Committee. It was submitted on a letterhead of the Leopards Rugby Union following discussions with other unions.

The unions that probably stand to lose the most in the event of the competition shedding two teams from the Premier League are the Leopards and Pumas.

In terms of the compromise proposal, the Premier League would continue with eight teams from 2012 to 2014, but only a single round would be played. After that there would be a quarter-final process similar to what we have seen in Super Rugby - in other words, 1 and 2 advance straight to the semi-finals, 3 hosts 6 in the first quarter-final and 4 would host 5 in the second quarter-final. Teams 7 and 8 would have to protect their status in promotion-relegation games.

It now looks as if this proposal has been gaining support, though a few battle lines will probably be drawn before that meeting on August 11.

When it comes to these matters, South African rugby is often split between big and small unions. There are six big ones and eight small ones, so the criticism is often that the tail ends up wagging the dog.

However, the argument that the Currie Cup's Premier League should remain as eight teams is not without its merits. Some of the country's top rugby intellectuals, including Brendan Venter, believe Super Rugby should be reduced and restructured into a format similar to the Heineken Cup, and that an eight-team Currie Cup Premier League is essential to the well-being of South African rugby.

The smaller unions also argue that the big ones already play one another twice as franchises in the conference format of Super Rugby. A double round Currie Cup adds two more fixtures between these teams. This is excluding possibilities of play-offs in Super Rugby and the Currie Cup.

How often then do we want, for example, Western Province and the Blue Bulls to play one another in a year? So the smaller unions, who have so often been accused of acting in own interest, have valid points.

I believe what we are seeing in South African rugby are the chickens coming home to roost on the Super Rugby format and the excessive amount of games that are being created for television. Perhaps someone will have to grasp the notion that less is sometimes more, though Super Rugby has delivered Australia a domestic competition, while possibly bringing about too much of a good thing in South Africa.

It will be interesting to see how South Africa deal with the matter in the short-term and how the competition structures develop for 2015 and beyond.

And yes, it will be interesting to see if the Boks really are in crisis. The home leg of their Tri-Nations campaign should provide the answers.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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