Final: Sign of SA rugby power-shift to coast?

WP lock JD Schickerling on the charge against the Sharks (Gallo Images)
WP lock JD Schickerling on the charge against the Sharks (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Yes, you can almost hear the scorn from Johannesburg already.

The “hell’s bells, haven’t you learnt your lesson yet?” sort of sentiment.

But with the second Currie Cup final in a row on Saturday to be contested between the same foes - defending champions Western Province and the Sharks, at Newlands - there is at least some ammunition to justify reopening the debate about whether South African rugby power (as far as the bigger picture of Super Rugby 2019 is concerned) is slowly shifting back toward the coast.

And that could mean, frankly, either toward the chilly waters around Cape Town or the warmer ones in Durban ... or even both to a good degree.

Chortling Lions supporters, of course, have heard all this before: this writer isn’t the only rugby scribe seduced a few times before in recent years into the belief - later proved utterly foolhardy - that a better chance of success in the multinational SANZAAR competition, following completion of the previous year’s Currie Cup, might rest either at Newlands or Kings Park.

It is now three “dry” seasons in a row, if you include the current one, for the Golden Lions in terms of appearances in Currie Cup finals, after they last graced it in 2015 and (still under Johan Ackermann’s tutelage) deservedly beat WP 32-24 at Ellis Park.

But it hasn’t stopped them, subsequently, from being conspicuously South Africa’s most competitive side in Super Rugby, with gutsy participation in all three finals between 2016 and 2018.

So certainly for the last two years at very least, the situation appears to make a mockery of any belief that Currie Cup success is somehow needed to precede a strong follow-up showing in the next Super Rugby.

Indeed, with the time-honoured but now severely battered domestic competition having lost enormous amounts of its prior lustre, there’s a case for saying it is even less of a yardstick.

Or is it?

While the Currie Cup is overwhelmingly played nowadays minus the presence of the most “inner-circle” Springboks, the ongoing phenomenon of good-quality South African players at or around the peak of their playing potential being plucked away to the lure of foreign-club currency means, in many respects, that the home-staged event has actually gained in importance as a builder of depth and young talent to unleash on the bigger stage from February onwards in Super Rugby.

There are still a couple of months for beef-up possibilities on the player staffing front at Ellis Park, and the Lions will reinfuse early next year certain customers campaigning as usual, for example, in Japan or locked in Bok obligations (like blue-chip Malcolm Marx and Aphiwe Dyantyi) at present.

But rather than go one step further in 2019 by finally shedding their “silver medal” tag and winning the Super Rugby showpiece, I have a mounting suspicion that the Lions’ goose is now cooked - at least for the foreseeable future - both as potential finalists and as SA’s best team.

There are some fresh-faced customers with pleasing X-factor in their midst, but for all-important balancing purposes they are certainly going to feel the absence in 2019 of now-departed, crustier figures Jacques van Rooyen, Jaco Kriel, Franco Mostert (his UK deal admittedly not quite done and dusted), Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Ruan Dreyer.

Although third place in the single-round Currie Cup this year hasn’t been a train smash by any means, confirmation that a few of their next generation still have plenty to learn came, perhaps, in their defeats to the very sides now contesting Saturday’s final - the Lions leaked an ominous 65 points to visiting WP, and then a week later went down by a comprehensive 16 points to the Sharks in Durban.

In very general, but possibly far from insignificant terms, both coastal sides look increasingly as though they will be able to strike better balances between greenhorns and “hardebaarde” by the time Super Rugby 2019 comes along, as well as quite feasibly eclipse the Lions for second-tier strength whenever men in key positions go down injured.

Remember that there will be increased pressure, you can be sure, from the respective boardrooms for both the Sharks and Stormers to pull up their socks with some intent in the SANZAAR tournament after both punched disappointingly below most appropriate weight, arguably, in this year’s Super Rugby.

This is an early call, and again there will be great guffaws of mockery in the Big Smoke, but Saturday’s Currie Cup final, featuring quite a few of the personnel who will move onward to spearhead the respective Super Rugby assaults, may well be a harbinger to some extent of which of that specific pair of teams from our shores fares best in the bigger competition, just around the corner in later summer.

On the plus side, Lions fans, I was wrong once.

Er, twice.

OK, maybe even three times.

Flying largely in the face of statistical material again, I realise I may simply be setting myself up for a fatal fourth occasion of egg plastered all over face ...

*Between the current “big three” SA franchises/unions, here is a reminder of Currie Cup successes for the last three seasons, with subsequent Super Rugby campaigns the next year added on:

2015

CC finalists: Lions, WP. Champions: Lions. Next Super Rugby (2016): Lions losing finalists, and second overall in ordinary season (Stormers third, Sharks eighth)

2016

CC finalists: Cheetahs, Bulls. Champions: Cheetahs. Next Super Rugby (2017): Lions losing finalists, and first overall in ordinary season (Stormers third, Sharks eighth)

2017

CC finalists: Sharks, WP. Champions: WP. Next Super Rugby (2018): Lions losing finalists, and second overall in ordinary season (Sharks eighth, Stormers eleventh)

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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