On the eve of the new Currie Cup season, Planet Rugby takes an in-depth look at the competition and the teams going for glory.
On the eve of the new Currie Cup season, Planet Rugby has taken an in-depth look at the competition and the teams going for glory in 2014.
One of the oldest tournaments in the world, the Currie Cup is the breeding ground of numerous Springboks and the stepping stone to greater heights, domestically and abroad, for most of South Africa's professionals.
The Sharks are the defending champions, after beating Western Province 33-19 in the final at Newlands in Cape Town.
The tournament has a rich history with the first matches played in 1889, but it only became officially known as the Currie Cup in 1892. Over the years, there has only been seven teams that have won the tournament – Western Province, Northern Transvaal/Blue Bulls, Transvaal/Golden Lions, Natal/Sharks, Free State/Free State Cheetahs, Griquas and Border.
After recent years, where six unions played in the tournament's Premier Division, this season will see a change in the competition's format, with eight teams now doing battle for the coveted trophy.
The start of the eight-team Currie Cup tournament – contested by the Sharks, Western Province, EP Kings, Free State Cheetahs, Golden Lions, Blue Bulls, Pumas and Griquas – is scheduled for this weekend. It will run until the final weekend of October, when the final will take place.
The eight teams will be divided into two sections on 2013 table positions: Section X (Western Province, Golden Lions, Blue Bulls, EP Kings) and Section Y (Sharks, Free State, Pumas, Griquas). The teams will play home and away within their sections followed by a single cross-conference round before semi-finals and final.
Sharks: The Durban-based side was established in 1890 and waited a century before winning their first Currie Cup title in 1990. They will be the side everyone wants to beat after they finished the 2013 season as champions. In recent years they have produced several Springboks and, after losing in the semi-finals of this year's Super Rugby tournament, will be keen to bounce back by defending their Currie Cup title.
Best finish: Champions (Seven times)
Captain: With first-choice skipper Bismarck du Plessis away on Springbok duty, the Sharks have entrusted Tera Mtembu with the captaincy armband for the Currie Cup. A rangy loose forward, Mtembu has impressed in previous Currie Cup and Super Rugby campaigns. As the first black player to skipper the Sharks there will be extra pressure on him to succeed but any captain is expected to deal with pressure and Mtembu's shoulders are broad enough to deal that.
Coach: After guiding the side to tournament success in 2013, Brad MacLeod-Henderson is back in charge for this Currie Cup campaign.
Last year's performance: Champions
This year's prospects: The Sharks will once again be amongst the front runners in the tournament and should be a contender for honours. Despite losing several of their first-choice players to the Springboks, they have plenty of depth and should make the semi-finals and eventually the final.
Western Province: They are usually amongst the favourites for the title and have won the Currie Cup more times than any other union, finishing as runners-up last year and winning the trophy in 2012 after an 11-year drought. They have also produced a plethora of Springboks over the years and have a large support base across South Africa.
Best finish: Champions (32 times including four shared)
Captain: After missing out on Springbok selection for the Rugby Championship and with last year's captain Deon Fourie leaving WP to play for Lyon, experienced centre Juan de Jongh will lead the Cape Town-based side's troops in 2014. De Jongh is an interesting choice as captain. He strikes one as the type of player who will lead by example as he is, after all, one of his side's best players. After playing alongside Springbok captain Jean de Villiers for several seasons now, he will be determined to follow in his midfield partner's footsteps by making a success of the leadership role.
Coach: As one of the most experienced coaches in the competition, Allistair Coetzee will be keen to repeat his effort of 2012, when he guided WP to success in this tournament. The 2007 World Cup winning assistant coach will, however, be under pressure to succeed as there has already been calls, in some quarters, for his axing after the Stormers' poor overall performance in Super Rugby.
Last year's performance: Runners-up
This year's prospects: As 2012's winners and last year's runners-up, Western Province are out for revenge this year. With Springboks like de Jongh, Jaco Taute, Pat Cilliers and Tiaan Liebenberg in their ranks, and several other players with Super Rugby experience also in their squad, WP will be expected to challenge for honours. As they found last season, anything less than a win in the final will be regarded as failure by their supporters.
Free State Cheetahs: They won the tournament for the first time in 1976 and waited nearly 30 years before winning the trophy again in 2005. The Cheetahs are renowned for their running style of play and seldom finish outside the top four places in the competition.
Best finish: Champions (Four times including one shared)
Captain: The versatile Torsten van Jaarsveld – he can play in the back row or hooker – was a surprise choice as captain as he only moved to the Cheetahs in 2013. He replaces Boom Prinsloo, who captained the men from Bloemfontein in 2013. A player similar in style to Heinrich BrÃ¼ssow, Van Jaarsveld leads a young and inexperienced side who will be without six first-choice players, who are on Springbok duty for the Rugby Championship.
Coach: The Cheetahs have a new man at the helm in Rory Duncan. A former Cheetahs lock, Duncan cut his teeth as a coach with the Cheetahs' U21 and Vodacom Cup teams, before making the step up to the Currie Cup as Naka DrotskÃ© 's replacement. DrotskÃ© has been sent to the UK to learn about the latest developments around coaching structures and rugby matters ahead of next year's Super Rugby campaign.
Last year's performance: Semi-finalists (lost to eventual winners, the Sharks).
This year's prospects: With a new captain and coach, the Cheetahs could be the unknown factor in this year's competition. Losing numerous players to the Springboks will also make things difficult and reaching the play-offs could be a bridge too far in 2014.
Golden Lions: Another union with a rich heritage, they went through some lows a couple of seasons ago but have bounced back and are once again amongst the contenders for honours.
Best finish: Champions (10 times including one shared)
Captain: Like in Super Rugby, back-row forward Warren Whiteley will skipper the men