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 in 2015.
One of the oldest tournaments in the world, the Currie Cup has long been the breeding ground for future Springboks and the stepping stone to greater heights. This year, it will run until the final weekend of October, overlapping with the World Cup.
The 2015 Currie Cup will be the 77th season since the start of the competition in 1889 (although it only became officially known as the Currie Cup in 1892). Over the years, there have only been seven winners – Western Province, Northern Transvaal/Blue Bulls, Transvaal/Golden Lions, Natal/Sharks, Free State/Free State Cheetahs, Griquas and Border.
Defending champions Western Province are the favourites and will be eager to add another title to their winning record.
The wild cards are the Griquas, who have little chance of winning the title but do have the ability to cause a few upsets, meaning they are likely to play a crucial role in deciding who will be in contention for the title come the end of the season.
Previously the tournament consisted of six unions, but the format was changed in 2014, with eight teams now doing battle for the coveted trophy.
The Currie Cup Premier Division will be divided into two sections in 2015: Section X (Western Province, Golden Lions, Blue Bulls, EP Kings) and Section Y (Sharks, Free State, Pumas, and the Qriquas, who were the qualifiers this season.)
The teams will play home and away within their sections followed by a single cross-conference round before semi-finals and final.
Western Province are the defending champions after beating the Lions 19-16 in the final at Newlands.
The Cape Town-based side was established in 1883, winning the Currie Cup more times than any other union. They have produced a glut of Springboks over the years, and have a large support base across South Africa.
Tournament record: Champions 34 times (including four shared)
Key players: Province captain Juan de Jongh has been an integral part of their success over the years, producing staggering performances in 'streep trui'. His leadership abilities along with his attacking prowess have earned him 14 Test caps for the Springboks. The WP stalwart played his last Test in 2012 and has since been a surprise omission. The 27-year-old deserves a place in the Springbok squad. He leads by example and his experience in the mid-field will help the youngersters around him.
Another key player is Nizaam Carr, who will provide the needed experience amongst the inexperienced forwards. His energetic presence on the field will impact the players around him, along with his ability to attack from broken play. Carr, who previously captained the team, will take some responsibility off De Jongh's shoulder.
Coach: Newly-appointed coach John Dobson was promoted after five successful seasons in charge of both the U21 and Vodacom Cup teams, having won three trophies in that period. However he will have plenty to prove as he fills the boots of former Currie Cup-winning coach Allistair Coetzee.
Last year's performance: A brilliant season saw them lose only one game – against the Sharks. They secured a home semi-final at Newlands against arch rivals the Blue Bulls, which they won comfortably. Finishing top of the log in 2014, WP secured a home final against the Lions and won by three points.
This year's prospects: With a very strong squad, WP are the favourites even though they lost some experienced players to the national team on World Cup duty. A tightly-knit group with plenty of pace in the back-line and a physical pack of forwards should help them make the semi-finals and eventually the final.
The Johannesburg side was established in 1889. Ellis Park has been the breeding ground for young and exciting players in recent years but – although they won the cup in 2011 – the union has not been able to revive the glory years of the mid-90s, when they won back-to-back titles.
Tournament record: Champions 10 times (including one shared)
Key Players: After an amazing Super Rugby season, Jaco Kriel just missed out on selection for the Springbok squad. Kriel creates a physical presence on the field, dominating opposition around the fringes of the ruck with strong ball carrying abilities. A good leader, and a stalwart for the Lions, Kriel will be key to their success this season.
Elton Jantjies regained his form in Super Rugby this year. His ability to create space for players around him will benefit their exciting running game.
Coach: Johan Ackermann will have plenty to prove this year knowing that he missed out on glory in last year's final. The former Springbok lock was promoted from being forwards coach when he took over from John Mitchell in 2012 and has since built on the attacking style of play inttoduced by the former All Blacks mentor, making them extremely difficult for teams to defend against.
Last year's performance: The Lions had an excellent season, but fell short in the final against WP losing by three points.
This year's prospects: The Lions will want to redeem themselves after a heart-breaking loss in last year's final. They will be one of the frontrunners in the competition and should reach the semi-finals.
The Pretoria-based union was established in 1938, producing more Springbok fly-halves than any other union.
Tournament record: Champions 23 times (including four shared)
Key Players: Bulls captain Lappies Labuschagne will lead the team from the front. His experience, physicality and strong defensive work will make him an immense force to be reckoned with.
The young and exciting Warrick Gelant will inject some pace from the back. His elusive step and brilliant aerial skills should benefit them in the absence of Jesse Kriel.
Coach: Newly-appointed coach Nollis Marais is under a lot of pressure to get the Bulls out of their current rut. He took over the reins after a disappointing Super Rugby season and will be keen to revive the winning culture at Loftus Versfeld.
Last year's performance: After a bumpy start, they fought their way back to earn a semi-final berth, but lost 31-23 against WP.
This year's prospects: After a disappointing Super Rugby season the Bulls will be out to prove themselves and should reach the semi-finals, at least.
Last year was the first time since 2009 that the Sharks did not make final having won the title in 2010 and 2013. The Durban-based union has been hit hard by Springbok call-ups but has a record of producing some of the country's best loose forwards.
Tournament record: Champions seven times
Key Players: Former WP and Cheetahs playmaker Joe Pietersen has the ability to create space with a lovely step and beautiful pass that will impact the players around him. His ability to control the game at fly-half and full-back will be important.
Thomas du Toit is monster at scrum-time for the Sharks and will provide them with the front foot at the set piece and also at the break-downs. The 20-year-old still has a lot to learn but his physical presence makes him a nightmare for opposing teams.
Coach: With the search for a permanent head coach still ongoing, Sharks Director of Rugby Gary Gold will coach their Currie Cup side this year. The former Bok assistant coach will have a lot to prove after a disappointing Super Rugby season. The scrum guru says, however, that he is "excited" by the squad's depth.
Last year's performance: After a tough season in which they still managed to finish third, they fell short against a stronger Lions team in the semi-finals, losing 50-20.
This year's prospects: The Sharks will be eager to improve after a dismal Super Rugby season and should feature in the semi-finals.
Free State Cheetahs:
The Cheetahs have produced lovely running rugby that was introduced by Rassie Erasmus many moons ago. The Bloemfontein-based side established in 1895. They have not won the title since 2007.
Tournament record: Champions four times (including one shared)
Key players: Boom Prinsloo might not be one of the biggest players on the park but he's definitely one of the toughest. A brilliant ball carrier with an immense work rate.
The experienced Sias Ebersohn returned to the Cheetahs after a spell at the Western Force. His time at the Force saw him develop into a more complete fly-half. His experience should inject some confidence in the team.
Coach: Franco Smith was thrown into the deep end after Naka Drotské quit during the Super Rugby season. The former Treviso coach was part of the Cheetahs coaching and management team that won the Currie Cup in 2005 and 2006.
Last year's performance: The Cheetahs struggled to find their groove and as a result finished fifth, missing out on the semi-finals.
This year's prospects: The Cheetahs will target a place in the semi-finals with the help of their newly-appointed coach and a few new players, but they will lack the firepower an depth to challenge for the title.
Established in 1886, the Griquas have been a stepping stone for many world-class players, producing some of the best back-line players in the world in the likes of Willie le Roux, Zane Kirchner and Bjorn Basson. They will have a lot to prove after being relegated last year.
Tournament record: Champions three times (last win in 1970)
Key players: Versatile back Rian Viljoen will be a valuable asset as he can play fly-half, full-back and wing. He's capable of slotting long-ranged penalties and his kicking out of hand is exceptional.
Domestic record holder for the fastest drop-goal in a match, Francois Brummer has been the regular fly-half at Griquas since he signed in 2012. The former Blue Bull's tactical kicking is excellent along with his ability to create space for the players around him. Brummer is calm under pressure and his experience will help the younger players to thrive.
Coach: Former Cheetahs back-line coach Hawies Fourie will be keen to take the young Griquas team to new heights. The former Boland Cavaliers head coach will coach Maties in the Varsity Cup from November.
Last year's performance: Poor performances throughout the Currie Cup saw them finish behind the Pumas and relegated from the competition – despite ending 10 points clear of the EP Kings. However, they fought their way back into the competition by winning all their qualifying matches this year.
This year's prospects: Having come through the qualifying series, Griquas will start the competition with some momentum and will benefit from that continuity and will be tough to beat on home soil. But the financial gap with the bigger unions means they are a long-shot for the play-offs.
Established in 1969, the Pumas are one of the younger unions in the country. They have never won a Currie Cup.
Tournament record: Best finish = sixth place
Key players: Lions Super Rugby scrum-half Faf de Klerk has been released from the Springbok squad and will be the Pumas' most important player in his last season in Nelspruit before returning to the Lions full-time.
Former sevens player Rosco Specman has blinding pace and the ability to run circles around players. His ability to break the line of defence will give the Pumas plenty of opportunities.
Former Ospreys player, Stefan Watermeyer has been the talisman at centre for the Pumas and will captain the side. His ball distribution is very good and he's immensely strong on his feet. A solid defender, Watermeyer will be their play maker in the midfield.
Coach: MJ Mentz has big shoes to fill since the depature of Jimmy Stonehouse, who was named South African rugby's Coach of the Year in 2013. Mentz, a former Blitzbok, was Stonehouse’s assistant and has now been trusted with the head coaching role for the Vodacom Cup and Currie Cup.
Last year's performance: Four wins from their 10 games – including home wins over the Cheetahs and Sharks – wasn't a bad return as they ended in sixth place.
This year's prospects: The Pumas will be eager to build on last year's win count after a few close encounters in 2014. They'll be tough to beat with electric pace in the back-line and their willingness to fight to the end. The play-offs are unlikely though.
Eastern Province Kings:
Established in 1888, they broke onto the world scene when they were given a Super Rugby berth in 2013. They have never won a Currie Cup.
Tournament record: Best finish = seventh place
Key players: Jan Uys joined the Kings in 2015, having previously represented Western Province. The towering lock was snapped up by the Kings after brilliant performances for WP in the 2014 Vodacom Cup. The 21-year-old injects physicality at the break-down and will be vital for the Kings at line-out time.
Utility back George Whitehead is capable of playing fly-half and full-back will be a playmaker in the back-line. His tactical kicking will benefit the Kings territorially.
Coach: The former EP Kings defence coach Brent Janse van Rensburg has been promoted to head coach. The 34-year-old takes over from former All Black fly-half Carlos Spencer, who led the team last year. Janse van Rensburg, who took over as head coach at NMMU in 2011, took the Madibaz to two consecutive Varsity Cup semi-finals in 2013 and 2014 before he joined Grey High School as Director of Rugby. Former Springbok prop CJ van der Linde will be the scrum guru, as well as still featuring as a player.
Last year's performance: The Kings struggled to keep afloat, winning only one game (at home to the Pumas) which resulted in a last place position on the overall log. They maintained their top-flight status for political reasons.
This year's prospects: A new coach and young exciting players will bring some innovation into the side. They will be keen to improve on last year's performance, but they are not yet strong enough to make the play-off stages. With Super Rugby on the horizon next year, they must improve drastically.