The Currie Cup is named after a man and was from the beginning a sponsor's trophy. That is surprising considering the aggressive amateurism of the 1890s.
Donald Currie was born in Glasgow on 17 September 1825, the third son of a Greenock barber. His family moved to Belfast in Northern Ireland when he was an infant. There his father is recorded as "Hairdresser and Perfumer", apparently successfully as the father of six sons and four daughters.
Donald spent his school days in Belfast at the Belfast Academy, the oldest school in Belfast, and later at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. He left school at the age of 14 and went back to Glasgow to his mother's brother John Martin of the sugar firm Hoyle, Martin & Co. and worked in a counting house of a sugar firm, called McFie. His oldest brother Alexander was also there.
Ships fascinated young Donald and he went to Liverpool to join his brother James in the employ of the Cunard Line which was then a small affair. Then he began to move round in the shipping world, going up rapidly till he formed his own steamship company in 1862. It was called Donald Currie and Co, initially involved in North Sea and Atlantic shipping.
In 1872 Donald Currie introduced his steamers to the Cape Town run as the Castle Line, in competition with the Union Line to be the mail-carrying ships. Later, on 8 March 1900, he joined with the Union Line to form the famous Union-Castle Line. He was knighted in 1881, taking Thorough as his motto.
In 1887 he came to South Africa for the first time. When the first cricket team came to South Africa the following year, Sir Donald gave the captain Major Warton, a cup to present to the team which played best against the tourists with the intention that it become a floating trophy for interprovincial competition. That was the first Currie Cup.
On 19 June 1891 the Dunottar Castle left Southampton with precious cargo - the touring British team, which called itself the English Team because England did the administration for team) and the Currie Cup with the same conditions as had applied to the cricket cup.
Currie travelled from London to Southampton and during a farewell luncheon on board the Dunottar Castle he handed the Cup to the captain, WE Maclagan, also a Scot. The whole thing was done with great publicity as Currie sought to steal the march on the Union Line. The Cup was a sponsor's tool. Over the years it has lost the sponsor feel and has even attracted a further sponsor's name - the Absa Currie Cup.
The Currie Cup became the Holy Grail of South African rugby, especially during the years when few Tests were played. It was valued at £40.
Never in the history of sport have so many played with so much passion over so many years for so little! It is a humble cup, the Currie Cup. The top is gold-plated silver, the base wood, and was put on display in Burmeister's Jewellers in Adderley Street, Cape Town, upon its arrival. Nowadays it is insured for R100 000, though, of course, it is impossible to put a monetary value on it.
No team beat the 1891 tourists, but they reckoned that Griqualand West had played best against them, perhaps a diplomatic decision as Kimberley was then in the thrall of men such as Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Barnato. After all mining was adding much to Currie's wealth and Rhodes had guaranteed the financial success of the 1891 tour.
Griquas were loath to part with it to fulfil Currie's conditions that it be used for interprovincial competition but eventually they gave in. Teams since then have also been reluctant to part with the Currie Cup.
Sir Donald Currie, GCMG, who made greater wealth from gold and diamonds than from shipping, was a member of Parliament for West Perthshire. He died in Sidmouth, Devon, on 13 April 1909. A special memorial service was held in St Paul's Cathedral in honour of Sir Donald Currie. King Edward VII and the Prince of Wales sent messages of condolence. His body was taken back to Scotland, where he was buried, not in a posh cathedral, but outside a small church outside the small village of Fortingall near Pitlochry in the highlands of Scotland. The grave is under a yew tree which thought to be the oldest living vegetation in Europe, possibly over five thousand years old. Currie had built the village the year before the 1891 tour at a spot where the Romans had once camped, thought to be the birthplace of Pontius Pilate.
The Currie Cup is under threat from other competitions such as the World Cup, the Tri-Nations soon to become Four Nations and Super Rugby which carries on expanding. But it is still the darling of South African rugby and Coca-Cola Park, as Ellis Park now is, sold all its 62 000 seats for the 2011 Final early in the Final week..
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