Western Province’s failure to make the Currie Cup semi-finals would not have been unexpected by anyone who joined me in a conversation with some Stormers management members in Johannesburg in May.
Gavin Rich writes in the Cape Argus that it was the aftermath of the Super 14 league game between the Stormers and the Lions at Ellis Park, the one where they scored three tries, one short of the four needed to put pressure on the other teams pushing for a place in the play-offs.
All the talk revolved around what needed to be done next time, where the improvements had to be made. And it was quite evident the conversation was directed at 12 months hence, not the few weeks that remained until the start of the domestic season.
Indeed, when the question was asked about the Currie Cup, it was one of the fitness advisers who made the point that the Currie Cup was only really relevant as a breeding ground for the Super 14.
The Super 14, as Stormers managing director Rob Wagner has subsequently often pointed out, is where the money is – and it is also quite obviously where the interest is.
This was a point borne out last week when 36,000 people pitched up for the deciding Currie Cup league match at Newlands.
That was considered a good Currie Cup turnout, but it was 10,000 less than would have been anticipated for a similar game in the Super 14, and what was considered an average turnout for Stormers matches in the competition in 2008.
The hospitality suites I visited before the match were not the vibrant, busy places they are in the Super 14 season. They were serving plates of chips instead of samoosas. Perception that WP had been performing below par would only partially explain this for, as was highlighted in a Weekend Argus article in May, the Stormers tend to draw big crowds even when they are in a losing sequence.
This might be an odd time to write about waning interest in the Currie Cup, as the two semi-finals played yesterday were sure to draw big crowds. But knock-out games are an exception to the rule.
Recently I had a chat with Brian van Zyl, chief executive of the Sharks, and he voiced similar concerns to the ones I wrote about two weeks ago.
The under-strength nature of the Currie Cup is not selling because people simply don’t see it as a realistic test of the strength of the respective provinces. That the Lions were celebrating an eight-point defeat to WP last week, and that the Cheetahs lost twice to Province this season, home and away, says everything you need to know about how much stronger WP are than two of the unions who are in the semi-finals.
Van Zyl is concerned that the under-strength component of the Super 14 gets people into the habit of not going to matches, something he feels was responsible for the killing off of interest in domestic cricket in this country. There are many people of my acquaintance who are religious about their attendance of Super 14 games but seldom bother to go to Currie Cup matches any more.
To debunk any theory that this has something to do with WP’s performances, we need to return to late June/early July, when the under-strength WP team lost narrowly to the Sharks in Durban before beating the Blue Bulls and Cheetahs at Newlands in the following weeks.
The Bulls game, supposedly the annual big north/south showdown, attracted only 21,000 through the turnstiles. The following week, even though WP were at that stage a winning team, was no better.
Admittedly it did rain, but rain didn’t frighten away the full-house that pitched for the Super 14 fixture against the Waratahs on what was possibly the worst night of an awful Cape winter.
What this tells us is that it is not just the rugby unions, the management and the players who focus on the Super 14, but the rugby public as a whole.
And this may become even more noticeable if moves to increase it to a Super 18, and thus extend the southern competition even further, are successful beyond 2010.
As the Stormers management members involved in that conversation back in May agreed, the Currie Cup might be a useful stepping stone if it gets players used to winning trophies. But in the modern world, it is the Super 14 that is the real thing.Tweet