- This past week has been characterised by robust debate over the quality of the rugby dished up in the Currie Cup to date.
- Several pundits have expressed concerns over whether SA's rugby product is waning.
- But Cheetahs coach, Hawies Fourie - while admitting to a frustrating product - points out that there have been several mitigating factors that explain the mediocre fare on the field.
The debate over the quality of rugby dished up in the current Currie Cup campaign is steadily becoming like typical discourse on any issue in the game.
Critics, notably pundits such as Nick Mallett and Swys de Bruin, express their concern over the product while people on the other side of the fence point out the unique circumstances presented by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Naturally, the game can only benefit from a diversity of views, but that ideal can only be complete if one more group is consulted: the head coaches navigating the choppy waters of a strange season.
Hawies Fourie, the Cheetahs' mentor, is one of those men.
Genial as ever, he's not averse to giving his input.
"I fully understand why there are questions being asked over the standard of the Currie Cup this season," Fourie told Sport24 on Wednesday.
"If I'm brutally honest, I have, at times, felt the same way, probably because my own team didn't play the best rugby. We're known for the good brand of rugby we play traditionally.
"But there are a few good reasons for this current situation."
And it's hard not to at least acknowledge them.
Local rugby essentially ended in early March. For eight months we didn't play and then suddenly we're thrust back into action. Because of that delay, we played rugby at a difficult time in South Africa. There's a reason why it's a winter sport. It's simply too warm in the summer months here and we also experienced the other challenge of some games having to be played in summer rainfall areas.
We saw games suspended by lightning as well as outings that were played in difficult, wet conditions. Allied to that, the players' inaction for those eight months was a problem. We didn't immediately realise what an impact that would have on the erosion of the players' overall skill levels.
I don't think we can deny that. Super Rugby Unlocked and the Currie Cup were two very short competitions and every team wanted to make sure they win it or at least take a really good stab at it. It's been a long time since I've seen a tournament have so many kicks at goal.
We ourselves were "guilty" of that. It was about getting points on the board. Teams didn't want to go for more attacking options like kicking to touch. You wanted points. It's an understandable outlook when you don't have the luxury of many games to win a tournament.
The new interpretations at the breakdowns had a major impact and there were even some strange other focus points that came in these past few weeks. I believe it was probably a bit unnecessary to change the interpretations midway through the campaign again. I really feel the referees could've waited until the conclusion of the Currie Cup and the start of the Franchise Cup to implement the new focus points.
You had attacking teams who couldn't come within five and ten metres from a set-piece and that created a lot of issues in terms of penalties conceded for that infringement. You had teams going for posts again or kicking to touch to launch a maul. A game breaks down when it's dogged by so many penalties.
The average penalty count is above average and that slows down the game. Average ball-in-play was very low this season, only about 26 minutes. In the Varsity Cup it was 35-36 minutes, in the PRO14 it went as high as 37-38 minutes. Some games even touched 40 minutes.
It contributed to a frustrating product to watch.
But Fourie isn't just in the business of pointing out several mitigating factors.
He also added an disclaimer, that all stakeholders in the domestic campaign need to be accountable for what has been a mediocre season:
All these factors played a role, but we shouldn't make excuses from them. Every player, coach and referee need to look at themselves to create a better product. But I'm confident by March the conditions will be better and that the players will be more used to the law interpretations.