The A to Z (or BB to WP) of Currie Cup 2018

The Sharks and Western Province contested the 2017 Currie Cup final, but only one of them is looking strong enough to repeat that feat this year Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

Following years of it being swallowed whole by the bloated Super Rugby competition, and undermined by the Springboks' Rugby Championship ambitions (and other top players looking for a quick yen in Japan) the once crown jewel of the South African rugby calendar has relevance again.

Players present at the launch of the condensed 2018 Currie Cup may have given lukewarm predictions of what this year's tournament might deliver as a result of the new single-round format but, at the very least, there will be intrigue around the fortunes of the seven provinces.

They're the same seven as last year, after Griquas easily beat the dreaded drop to insignificance (and worse, financial ruin). However, will the Sharks and Western Province be the teams to beat again? Who of the 'Big 5' will miss out on the semi-finals? Also, will it be home-ground advantage that counts or being bold in away fixtures? These are the types of questions which left punters wondering whether they even cared because they were so jaded ... but the short, sharp and punchy should reignite interest again because this tournament after all is where the future stars rubber-stamp their credentials.

But what to make of the teams and how they stack up? Well, read our analysis below:

BLUE BULLS (2017: fourth, lost 27-37 to Sharks in semi-finals)

Sponsor: Vodacom

Home ground: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria

Head coach: Pote Human

Captain: Hanro Liebenberg

Springboks (7): Jesse Kriel, Embrose Papier, Handré Pollard, RG Snyman, Marco van Staden, Ivan van Zyl

It's difficult to judge how the Blue Bulls might stack up in this year's Currie Cup, but their chances of claiming a first title since 2009 (to add to their 23 in total) look rocky.

Last year they reached the semi-finals by only one point over the Free State Cheetahs (before being swatted aside by the Sharks); then it was hoped that their regenerated squad would be Super Rugby 'troublemakers' but arguably underachieved if it's considered that they have seven players in Rassie Erasmus' current Springbok squad - with Warrick Gelant, Trevor Nyakane, Lood de Jager and Travis Ismaiel missing out through injury. The recent rumours around coaching supremo John Mitchell's imminent departure (on the back of the union's awkward search for a new CEO) also puts a dampener on their tournament preparations.

All this means that veteran coach Pote Human (promoted from Super Rugby forwards coach) will have a tough job on his hands, even more so because their injury list is rather lengthy. It was thus no surprise that their pre-tournament buildup has featured talk of "building towards the 2019 Vodacom Super Rugby", "increasing depth and junior player development" and executing Mitchell's "blueprint".

None of that suggests winning this year's Currie Cup is expected, and when you don't expect something it usually doesn't arrive...


Sponsor: Toyota

Home ground: Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein

Head coach: Daan Human

Captain: Oupa Mohoje

Springboks: None

If it isn't tough enough for the Cheetahs to balance their Currie Cup campaign under Daan Human with their PRO14 commitments (which will be overseen by director of rugby Franco Smith) then opening the local competition against the four strongest teams in the first four weeks almost seems unfair.

However, at least these challenges are creating a 'vibe' around the Bloemfontein team. New players have come in to rejuvenate a necessarily large squad that was arguably able to shed members who were getting stale. They have also not lost anybody to the Springbok set-up -- be it players or Smith who consulted during the Allister Coetzee era -- so their planning phase would have been stable ... important after 2017's lastminutedotcom-esque juggle act.

On the playing side there's definite case of 'point to prove'; be it new recruits such as ex-Bulls Rudy Paige (scrumhalf), Tian Schoeman (flyhalf) and Dries Swanepoel (centre) or long-termers such as Oupa Mohoje and Ox Nche who must be craving more than the brief tastes of Springbok action they have had.

All told, and schedule aside, the Cheetahs can be confident about their Currie Cup semi-final chances. Their players will start off fresher than the other contenders having had a proper off-season, while the lessons learnt from last year will have left them wise enough to be the team who ends up on the right side of one-point split between 4th and 5th...

GOLDEN LIONS (2017: third, lost 5-19 to Western Province in semi-finals)

Sponsor: Xerox

Home ground: Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg

Head coach: Ivan Van Rooyen

Captain: Andries Coetzee

Springboks (9): Cyle Brink, Ross Cronjé, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Elton Jantjies, Lionel Mapoe, Malcolm Marx, Franco Mostert, Marvin Orie, Warren Whiteley

Much the same as the previous two years, the Golden Lions are the biggest losers with the Currie Cup kicking off at the same time as the Rugby Championship. They may start the tournament with a bye, but the loss of nine players plus senior coach Swys de Bruin (who'll advise part-time while consulting Rassie Erasmus) to the Bok set-up will be felt heavily.

However, that's the price of success, and they've built that success on a policy which precludes excuse-making. The fact that eight of their current Springboks (Mostert the exception) signed on for a further year earlier this week shows that there remains a 'feel-good' feeling at Emirates Airline Park despite a third consecutive Super Rugby final loss.

In terms of the Currie Cup (which they last won in 2015 for the 11th time), interim coach Ivan van Rooyen -- nominally the union's head of strength and conditioning -- will still be able to call on an experienced core of players which includes an all-Springbok back three of Courtnall Skosan, Ruan Combrinck and Andries Coetzee, tearaway flank Kwagga Smith, who had a taste of international rugby in June, and near-namesakes Dillon Smit (scrumhalf) and Dylan Smith (prop). They all recommitted themselves to union this week too ... which will undoubtedly be a fillip going into the Currie Cup campaign.

Should Van Rooyen find his feet quickly as a head coach (as De Bruin has, mind) then the Lions would be a good bet to finish in the top two places after the pool stage. Once there, and with them being different beasts at Emirates Airline Park, they would almost certainly end up in another final where strength in depth and motivation would stand them undoubtedly in good stead.

GRIQUAS (2017: seventh, beat Griffons 59-26 in relegation-promotion playoff)

Sponsor: Tafel Lager

Home ground: Tafel Lager Park, Kimberley

Head coach: Peter Engledow

Captain: Kyle Steyn

Springboks: None

Griquas, and their uniquely passionate supporters, are arguably the biggest losers with the tournament taking on a single-round format for they have thrived in making life tough for the 'big dogs' when they visit Kimberley.

This year only the Blue Bulls, Cheetahs and Sharks will have to endure the rock-hard and off-white pitch conditions at Tafel Lager Park. That said, Peter Engledow's charges only won two of their six home matches last year (against Western Province and neighbours Cheetahs incidentally), which goes a long way to indicating why they finished bottom of the table -- even if they were only one point worse off than the Pumas.

It bears remembering that flyhalf George Whitehead finished last year's tournament as top point-scorer, and winger Ederies Arendse was among the leading try-scorers (the others all having subsequently played international rugby of some sort) so there were positives. This is also a new campaign, and while they don't have the resources to match the top teams, they did manage to hold on to their best players.

The feeling of being slighted by the tournament revamp might be a good emotion for Engledow to tap into -- at least to draw out their favoured mode of 'spoilers' -- and a desire to finish above the Pumas who snatched the SuperSport Rugby Challenge trophy away from them a few weeks back with a last-minute score.

PUMAS (2017: sixth)

Sponsor: iCOLLEGE

Home ground: Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit

Head coach: Jimmy Stonehouse

Captain: Hennie Skorbinski

Springboks: None

On face value the Pumas' 2017 Currie Cup campaign would look like it was a battle to avoid the relegation-promotion playoff with Griquas; and having edged the men from Kimberley by a point, it would have to be considered a satisfactory season.

However, they underachieved. While the Pumas managed four wins last year (three at home), that number could easily have been higher considering they lost four by three points or less in the second half of the season: 28-29 vs Golden Lions (Round 8), 25-27 vs Sharks (Round 9), 32-33 vs Free State Cheetahs (Round 11) and 35-38 vs Griquas (Round 13). So fine were the margins between sixth place on the log and second, and a home semi-final at Mbombela Stadium.

Of course, apart from showing that they were anything but overawed last season it also indicates that they took too many weeks to get into their stride ... a luxury that won't be available to them this time around. As such, Jimmy Stonehouse will no doubt be hammering into his troops the importance of taking their chances when they come and harnessing the momentum of their recent SuperSport Rugby Challenge win.

The big downer, though, is that Stonehouse, the Pumas' director of rugby, has taken over at short notice from erstwhile head coach Brent Janse van Rensburg, who left the team in early August. Janse van Rensburg is reportedly headed for more lucrative options with either Paarl Boys' High School or Eastern Province but left talking about the Pumas being in "a good space" ahead of this year's tournament: "There are a lot of systems that have been put in place with the team, continuity in the group, which they should take into the Currie Cup."

SHARKS (2017 runners-up, lost 21-33 to Western Province in final)

Sponsor: Cell C

Home ground: Jonsson Kings Park, Durban

Head coach: Robert du Preez

Captain: Chiliboy Ralepelle

Springboks (8): Lukhanyo Am, Jean-Luc du Preez, Thomas du Toit, André Esterhuizen, Makazole Mapimpi, Tendai Mtawarira, Lwazi Mvovo, Akker van der Merwe

The Sharks are the only team which has coaching continuity between its Super Rugby and Currie Cup set-ups. That said, Robert du Preez has nonetheless added ex-England international Nick Easter as a breakdown coach, with his appointment expected to complement the existing structure of Dick Muir (backline consultant), Jaco Pienaar (forwards coach), Braam van Straaten (defence) and AB Zondagh (skills).

However, all that continuity will count for nothing if the Sharks don't put the ghosts of losing the 2017 Currie Cup final at home behind them this time around. They may be losing eight players to the national cause (and have Coenie Oosthuizen and S'bu Nkosi absent through injury), but they ended the Super Rugby season in a good space and will need to harness that optimism.

The appointment of Chiliboy Ralepelle as captain may well be a masterstroke following his non-selection for the playoffs last season as, apart from setting that right, he will also desperately want to catch Rassie Erasmus' eye for higher honours. That is also the case for the first-choice halfbacks, Cameron Wright and Robert du Preez Jr, as well as fullback Curwin Bosch and loose-forward Daniel du Preez.

The presence of former captain Tera Mtembu, experienced lock Hyron Andrews and the talented duo of centre Jeremy Ward and loose-forward Jacques Vermeulen also adds to a settled feel about their best XV, and means they should start the tournament as favourites to win a first title since 2013 to take their overall tally up to eight.

WESTERN PROVINCE (2017 champions, beat Sharks 33-21 in final)

Sponsor: DHL

Home ground: DHL Newlands, Cape Town

Head coach: John Dobson

Captain: Chris van Zyl

Springboks (9): Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Steven Kitshoff, Siya Kolisi, Wilco Louw, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Damian Willemse

Western Province largely surprised by going to Durban last year and beating the Sharks to claim their record-extending 34th Currie Cup title, but it would be a brave soul who bets on them going back to back.

From a playing perspective, the Cape team's Super Rugby campaign was dour, at best. As a result, Robbie Fleck ended it with pressure piled on him from the Newlands 'faithful' and local media; then it came as no surprise when reports emerged of issues between him and assistant Paul Treu, who's imminently more qualified than the former Springbok centre owing to his success with the Blitzboks.

Be that as it may, and an aside because the wily John Dobson takes charge of Currie Cup matters, off-the-field things are also anything but lekker. The liquidation issue of 2017 lingers on, as does the non-payment of loans. Meanwhile, clarity on the mooted move to Cape Town Stadium is as muddy as the Newlands pitch on a rainy Cape winter's day. Worst of all, rumours of key player departures due to a lack of funds swirl, and that amid the oddity of the team's pre-Currie Cup tour to France (at the expense of their hosts there, mind). It is no wonder that WP Rugby's website contains almost as many official statements refuting the above as match reports and success stories.

Ultimately, WP's title will be retained or relinquished on the field ... where they will have to do without nine Springboks (ten, if you count injured centre Damian de Allende). That number includes an almost entire forward pack and flyhalf Damian Willemse who so inspired their 2017 campaign and who the union bet most of their chips on financially. There is experience among those left behind, but more in the 'can do a job' category rather than 'can set the tournament alight'.


Round-robin phase: Friday, 17 August - Saturday, 13 October

Semi-finals: Saturday, 20 October

Final: Saturday, 27 October