Sport

UNHEALTHY COMPETITION

Currie Cup impasse is a symptom of the problems facing SA’s oldest rugby competition

Currie Cup impasse is a symptom of the problems facing SA’s oldest rugby competition
The Cheetahs celebrate after the 2023 Currie Cup final against the Pumas in Bloemfontein. (Photo: Johan Pretorius / Gallo Images)

The 2024 Currie Cup has been squeezed into a July and August window and the scheduling has led to an impasse between players and bosses.

For years the Currie Cup was South Africa’s premier rugby competition and the tournament that formed the bedrock of the South African game.

That, though, was in a long-gone amateur era, played in a different time and in a different world. It was championed as the tournament that kept South African rugby strong during isolation – which it did.

Ever since the advent of professionalism in mid-1995 and the first full professional season of Super Rugby in 1996, the Currie Cup has drifted around the South African rugby calendar searching for a permanent home and lost relevance.

For a time, it co-existed well with Super Rugby and South Africa’s global alignment with southern hemisphere countries New Zealand and Australia.

But since SA Rugby’s move to the northern hemisphere, which was done for very good commercial reasons, the Currie Cup has become an awkward burden.

No off-season

There is no more off-season from November to late January as there was between 1996 and 2021 because of northern hemisphere alignment.

Many still want the Currie Cup played, but finding space in the calendar, while adhering to the demands of player welfare in an increasingly congested timetable, is becoming virtually impossible.

Currie Cup

Sharks captain Gary Teichmann with the Currie Cup after his side beat Western Province 25-17 in the 1995 final in Durban. (Photo: © Tertius Pickard / Gallo Images)

MyPlayers, the organisation that represents South African professional players’ interests, called for arbitration with the South African Rugby Union (Saru) over interpretation of a resting clause in the Currie Cup playing agreement.

It’s a technical issue but the reality is that MyPlayers is trying to ensure that players are protected and not forced to play for 20 months in a row, which would be the case for some individuals if they participate in the Currie Cup.

The unions, particularly the big four involved in the United Rugby Championship (URC) and European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) competitions, will need some players to push on.

Players who will feature for the Springboks in July and August, have had their eight weeks’ mandated rest during a defined January and February window.

But there are many other players, who are playing URC and EPCR, but are not Springboks, who could be asked to play in the Currie Cup in July and August. That should be their off-season.

If they do play, and subsequently continue through next season’s URC and EPCR, they would’ve played for 20 months or more. That is untenable from a welfare perspective.

Letter to members

Last week, MyPlayers informed its members that it had called for arbitration with Saru over the matter.

“As some of you might know, the Currie Cup competition in 2024 is scheduled to take place in the July-September window,” the letter stated.

“In the past, July and August were reserved as the annual rest period for all the provincial players. Playing the Currie Cup during the July-September period therefore creates player welfare challenges.

“During November 2023, we entered into negotiations with Saru and SAREO (the employers’ organisation) in an attempt to solve the challenges related to playing the Currie Cup during the July-September window.

“These discussions were constructive and for most of it, it seems that a solution would be brokered. Saru and SAREO however insisted, going forward, that they would want to be able to play players for periods longer than 12 months and that provision should be made in the settlement agreement for players to play effectively for up to 20 months without rest.

“The practice of playing players for longer than 12 months without rest is nowhere applied in world rugby nor supported by conditioning experts we consulted with and or in line with the draft World Rugby player load guidelines.

“In addition, the South African player load increased significantly since the start of the URC in that players now have shorter annual rest periods.

“The amount of international provincial games per year increased by almost 38%, national players’ load was increased by almost 15% while international travel increased with 300% and now conducted in economy class with limited direct route options.

“Although the annual successful delivery of the Currie Cup competition is of utmost importance to all of us, we could not agree for Saru and SAREO, in addition to the above load increases, to play players for up to 20 months without rest going forward.”

Elephant in the room

While this impasse should be dealt with quite speedily, with arbitration set for next month, the long-term issue of the Currie Cup and its place in SA Rugby’s future won’t be resolved.

Regardless of which way the arbitrator (who has not been named yet) rules, the outcome will only have an impact on the 2024 Currie Cup season.

What happens in 2025 and beyond with a tournament that rugby people say they want, but don’t know how to accommodate appropriately, is a question that will rumble on.

The late Gerbrand Grobler, Francois Pienaar, Uli Schmidt with the Currie Cup after Transvaal beat Free State 56-33 in the 1994 final. (Photo: Wessel Oosthuizen / Gallo Images)

For Saru, the Currie Cup still brings in commercial value. It’s understood they have sponsorship to the value of R26-million for the 2024 competition, while SuperSport also pays for the rights to broadcast it.

From that viewpoint it makes good sense to continue. But for the major unions, who contract 57 senior professional players, there is decreasing value, especially when weighed up against URC and EPCR demands.

What no one is admitting is that when SA Rugby moved north, with the blessing and unanimous agreement of all its member unions, the landscape changed forever.

Effectively SA Rugby’s entry into the URC and EPCR sold the eight weeks open in the calendar to those competitions. It took away space for the Currie Cup to be played in its own designated window.

The real issue is not about player rest, but about too much congestion of competitions. The Currie Cup’s window was lost to northern hemisphere alignment and now it’s being clawed back by being scheduled in what should be a player’s rest period.

A Saru spokesperson told Daily Maverick they would let the process run its course and did not offer any further opinion on the matter. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • JOHANN SCHOLTZ says:

    I am not always convinced that the URC or Super Rugby before it generates more interest than what would be the case if we went back to the “old” Currie Cup of the top 6 unions in the country playing each other home and away + a final. 11 games max. Wooden spoon to play promo/relagation game. Full strenght sides, with international players available. I think you will see a return of public interest in all games as all games will count. SA used to be a financial powerhouse in world rugby, with the biggest stadiums in the world, loyal sponsors and fans. It was down to having a great product. The level of history behind the Currie Cup is not something you create overnight in a new competition. That is a big part of the appeal of the EPL in football. We could then maybe still play in the EPCR?

  • Geoff Coles says:

    Seeing these old players stirs the memories and theheart

  • Steve Davidson says:

    “… while international travel increased with 300% and now conducted in economy class with limited direct route options.”

    I realise I’m a bit off-piste, but how on earth did SARU allow Qatar Airways into the story with ridiculously long flights in cattle class for huge rugby players? It is disgraceful, especially considering the money the players are bringing in?! Surely Qatar could have been convinced that using some of their spare planes for direct SA to Europe flights would have brought them far more positive PR than the comedic one they’re getting now? A total shambles.

    Oh iro the Currie Cup – rather cancel it this year and wait until the whole shebang of international rugby N-S has had time to settle down. It is DEFINITELY the way to go but needs a bit more thought and experience at the moment.

  • John Patson says:

    Invite the north to the party — use the actual Currie cup as the old Heineken trophy.
    Instant heritage for the old Heineken competition, which in spite of its splendour, keeps changing its name for sponsors, and all South African “clubs” are based on the provinces anyway…

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