The Currie Cup is 120 years old this year, the oldest provincial competition in the world. Paul Dobson asks if interest in the Currie Cup is waning?
Last week the Blue Bulls came down from Pretoria to play Western Province at Newlands - Newlands which always gets big crowds. Not long ago it was a match sold out well in advance, tickets advertised in the press at exorbitant prices.
It was different last Saturday. It was a struggle to give tickets away, even those in prime positions on the Grand Stand, and in the end 13 649 people came to Newlands to watch.
Those who came were blessed with a magnificent game of rugby. In fact Currie Cup rugby this year has been exciting, creative, skilful - a better watch than Test rugby. But still the crowds were small.
That meagre crowd at Newlands was the second biggest Currie Cup crowd of the season so far, after the 14 329 who watched the Free State Cheetahs and the Blue Bulls in Bloemfontein. When the Sharks, who top the Currie Cup log, came for the previous match at Newlands there were just 6 279 spectators.
It's all so sad.
One wonders why a traditional competition such as this with such exciting rugby should attract so few spectators.
1. It is true many of the stars are absent as the Springboks are playing as SANZAR gobbles up more and more of the season. But would you really rather see Jean de Villiers getting a pass a half than watching JP du Plessis running with the ball?
The answer seems to be Yes. We want to see the best players playing.
2. Is it true that there is just too much rugby - an extended Super Rugby season, a break for three Tests and this new four-team Championship with the Currie Cup squeezed in? Oh, and there's more to come - a tour overseas and then - alleluia - a month's break.
Again the answer is Yes. It is too much to keep the interest going and far too much for player bodies. No wonder, more and more players are picking up serious injuries.
Too much rugby certainly is an issue.
3. With the new SANZAR system of conferences the top sides play each other four times a season - twice in Super Rugby and then, with a weakened team, twice in the Currie Cup.
That, too, is overkill.
4. Kick-off times. This year the main match at Newlands will have kicked off 13 time at 19.00. There is no climatic reason for the games to kick off so late; in fact there are real climatic reasons for them to kick off earlier.
The other provinces are experiencing the same. At Kings Park the tradition of the car park is being destroyed.
The broadcaster - and TV owns rugby - wants the best broadcast times. He has no interest in empty seats in stadiums.
Last year Greg Peters, the CEO of SANZAR, was in South Africa. Asked if he were not concerned that his organisation was having an adverse (possibly fatal) effect on the Currie Cup he was clearly indifferent. After all Australia has no provincial competition and New Zealand's is comparatively young and watered down by the absence of the stars, for All Blacks are contracted, not to the provinces but to the NZRU who then can stop them playing.
It seems that to too many people, including some in South Africa, the Currie Cup doesn't matter.
Isn't that sad?
By Paul Dobson
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