The evolution of a competition
In the 82 Currie Cup tournaments over the 129 years that the winners were decided, has been contested with so many, many different systems applied.
It varied from initial tournaments at a single venue over three matches in a week, to home and away tournaments played over a single round and later a double round, and eventually the league system in various formats that were followed by a single or more play-offs to determine the winner, as it is today.
In 1957-1959 the Currie Cup, the only deviation since from the play-off final that was started in 1939 – was played over three seasons. There have been 62 finals.
There were years that the competition wasn’t played when the Springboks toured, other occasions when it was skipped when touring sides visited South Africa – and in latter years it became near-practice that the unions would battle it out while the Springboks were on SANZAAR’s Tri-Nations or Rugby Championship tours, just for the Boks to return and be selected for the final in some of the cases!
The moral of the story is that it is, and has been for 82 tournaments, South Africa’s top competition. “Diluted” by the absence of the top players, with the standard at a slightly lower level than before? Yes.
But it remained the top prize that could be played for and so it will be again this weekend, even without spectators and the usual razzmatazz.
Out of the 62 finals played, there are 26 with the points difference (using the value of a try in each instance) equal to or less than a score.
There are too many interesting and close finals to mention. Below is a random selection of the exciting finishes and surprising results over the years in the quest for the Currie Cup:
1939: The very first Currie Cup final was played at Newlands. The referee was Boy Louw, legendary Springbok prop who had helped secure the first series win against the All Blacks in New Zealand two years before. Transvaal beat WP 17-6 in what was regarded as a huge upset.
1970: One of the great shocks in Currie Cup finals history was Griquas’ 11-9 win against Northern Transvaal in 1970. The home team won, on merit, after a huge penalty against the wind kicked by flank Peet Smit minutes before the end of the match. Northern Transvaal, defending champions of the previous two years, were aiming for a fourth successive win in a final after beating Natal 14 years before in Durban, the previous time a Currie Cup competition was played. The Griquas win followed a building process of six years under the former Griquas Springbok Ian Kirkpatrick. What made it even more of a fairy tale was that many of the Griquas players travelled hundreds of kilometres to train and play in Kimberley and had only 10-12 training sessions per year!
1971: Northern Transvaal was leading Transvaal 14-9 at Ellis Park after a monster penalty by Chris Luther on fulltime. Spectators, assuming the match was over, charged onto the field, but referee Gert Bezuidenhout allowed the kick-off. With spectators still on the field, Transvaal regained possession from the kick-off. Captain Piet Greyling and Simon Norwood launched an attack, and prop Sakkie Sauermann was there to drive over. Van Deventer’s conversion made the final score 14-all.
1974: The shortcomings of the three-section Currie Cup system were exposed when Transvaal found that it would suit them to lose against Eastern Province in Port Elizabeth. That would give them a home semi-final against the same side a week later and avert a Newlands semifinal against Western Province. Transvaal beat Eastern Province 30-6 in the semifinal a week later and for the second time in three years, faced their neighbours Northern Transvaal. Then followed one of the most famous tight heels in the days when the ball was still put straight into the scrum. With four minutes to go and with the Light Blues 17-14 ahead, Transvaal’s Paul Bayvel fed the scrum. Transvaal’s flyhalf Gerald Bosch was ready to drop-kick the winner, but hooker Willie Kahts struck with the assistance of big, amiable Hans Weber on his tighthead side, the ball was cleared, and that was that …
1975: It wasn’t Northern Transvaal’s best season and Free State felt they could run them off their feet in the Bloemfontein final. But then it rained, Free State’s ace kicker De Wet Ras had an off day and Northerns kicked, mauled and won back the kicked possession from 14 of Free State’s lineout balls.
With two minutes to play, Free State’s centre Pikkie du Toit cut the line and scored under the posts. With Ras’ conversion, it was 6- all, But it wasn’t over. Gerber kicked off, the ball was mauled up by the big Northerns pack, then taken to the blindside. When Louis Moolman plucked it out, scrumhalf Tommy du Plessis, let it out to Gerber who passed to Christo Wagenaar. He had no option and kicked it to the right, high and into no-man’s land. It bounced high, very high, on a wet field that had often seen the ball stop dead in the run-up to this moment.
With his high knee action, Pierre Spies had chased after the kick. He reached up at full pace, got his fingertips to the ball, and tapped and caught it without losing even a semblance of a stride. Free Stater Kleintjie Grobler’s despairing dive had no chance, and Spies’ opponent Gerrie Germishuys could do little but look on. Thoresson’s conversion made it a wonderful win – deserved, but also lucky.
1976: After the late try that cost them the 1975 title, the Free State did get their hands on the Currie Cup. They convincingly beat Western Province 33-16 in Bloemfontein. Over and above winning their first title, Free State surprised when they selected 13 starting players from the Shimla and brought on a 14th as injury replacement. It is a record probably never to be bettered in these days of professionals who don’t play club rugby.
1979: Match-winner Naas Botha showed in his first season what pain he could inflict on opponents with an angled drop-kick at Newlands. Western Province were in the lead until literally the last move of the match. The ball came Northern Transvaal’s way from the Railway Stand on the south-eastern of the field – and with time up and Province leading 15-12, Naas Botha decided to drop. Botha, not for the last time in a final, scored all his side’s points with three penalties and two drop goals for their 15 points.
1984: In those days the winner of the B Section of the Currie Cup (now called the First Division) played against the team second on the A section log to see who would play in the final against the leading A Section team.
Free State was in second place and had to play at Kings Park on a sweltering, humid day in Durban. Their captain Gerrie Sonnekus stated in television interviews that his team was “looking forward to the final against Western Province.” And the tickets for the final against WP in Bloemfontein had already been printed! Natal warmed up on the outside fields of King’s Park. Years later, huge Free State and Springbok lock Vleis Visagie, after he had joined Natal, admitted to how the Free Staters just sat in the change room, convincing themselves that it was warm enough not to warm up. The win by 26-15 set Natal up for their second Currie Cup final, against Western Province at Newlands, which they lost 9-19 after leading 9-3 at the break.
2004 to 2007: The Cheetahs, as they were by then called, were in every final and won three titles (one shared) in this period. They lost to the Blue Bulls at Loftus in 2004 (33-42), beat the Blue Bulls (29-25 in 2005 at Loftus), drew with them 28-all in 2006 and then won against the Lions (20-18).
The draw in 2006 was followed by a watershed decision that future drawn matches at full-time would extend into extra time. This decision was taken after the Blue Bulls captain Gary Botha decided against aiming a long kick at the posts to win out of fear that the Free Staters, rampant at that stage, could run from their own try-line to get close enough for a penalty or even a try to win the match.
1990: Natal was one of the five teams that took part in the first Currie Cup tournament in 1892, and it was 98 years later that they won the Currie Cup for the first time, although they came mightily close in 1956 when they were beaten in the last minute of the final at the Old Kingsmead cricket field in Durban, 8-9.
Perhaps later Springbok coach Ian McIntosh deserved more plaudits for the 1990 win than he received. He selected a monster pack to keep the ball from Northern Transvaal’s match-winner Naas Botha, brought in sports psychologist Ken Jennings; and had oxygen on standby for the training days at altitude.
Natal overcame their loss of 6-28 in the two teams’ clash just before the final and an earlier 9-24 setback, both at Loftus. Natal’s big boys stifled the power of the Northerns pack and used their chances. The score was 12-9 to the home side just a few minutes before the match’s end when Natal right wing Tony Watson, with his try in front of the open (eastern) stand, broke the hearts of Northern Transvaal’s supporters and heralded the beginning of celebrations throughout the country. Natal was awarded a penalty on the centre spot, goaled by Joel Stransky, for a knee into Watson’s back after the try was scored. At 18-12, and with tries still only worth four points, Natal was assured of at least a draw. But Natal held out for a wonderful win.
2011: The Sharks qualified for the final after playing without their Springboks all season and travelled to Ellis Park with their internationals, including French international Frederic Michalak, after the SA national side had been eliminated from the World Cup. The Lions’ coach John Mitchell’s “no-hopers”, playing delightful expansive rugby, won 42-16 to clinch their first title since 1999.