Francois Venter © Gallo Images
The Currie Cup final delivered the result most neutrals would have been hoping for as the Cheetahs completed a resoundingly successful season by annexing the golden trophy for the first time since 2007, and now comes the big question – can they take the next step by becoming competitive in Super Rugby?
The 36-16 final scoreline by no means flattered the Cheetahs in the Bloemfontein final, as for most of the game it appeared the Blue Bulls were just hanging on. It was also no less than most would have expected after the Cheetahs’ even more comprehensive triumph in the semifinal the week before.
Super Rugby cannot be equated with the Currie Cup as it is a whole different level. The Cheetahs battled this year in the southern hemisphere competition and next year it will be much tougher for them as they will be playing New Zealand teams during the cross-section component of the tournament. This year they played against Australian sides.
However, the Lions had to play Kiwi sides in the 2016 edition of the competition and they made the final. And the reason the Lions are mentioned is because they built their relative success this year on the strong platform created during an unbeaten run in last year’s Currie Cup. As dominant as the Lions were in 2015, so have the Cheetahs been now, and there can be no denying the massive confidence suddenly flowing through the team.
The key for the Cheetahs will be to keep the team together, and their fans would have been pleased to hear their director of rugby Rory Duncan say when he was interviewed on television that the core of the side will be back in 2017. That is a massive plus as the Lions built their success around continuity, something that has been clearly underlined in the Currie Cup, where they struggled without their Springboks.
Continuity breeds confidence, and it is a big part of the Cheetahs’ success story. So continuity is going to have to be a crucial ingredient if they are to continue to progress and take their game to a new level in Super Rugby. There have been some dramatic improvements made during the Currie Cup months, most notably on defence, which was the foundation of their win over the Lions the previous week.
There has never been that much wrong with the Cheetahs’ attacking game. It was always defence that let them down, and now that their defensive game has been put right, and they have become so good at transitioning from defence to attack, they should be able to grow further and be competitive in Super Rugby – provided they retain the same playing group.
But it is not really just about keeping the team that played together in the final together. The Cheetahs enjoyed a relatively injury free domestic season. That may not be the case in an arduous Super Rugby season. So a lot will depend on their depth. To challenge in Super Rugby you need 30 or more top players, not just 20.
Fortunately the Cheetahs’ excellent coach Franco Smith appears to know that, for he did make the point after the Lions game that he has had an extended squad working with him over the past few months. That will come in handy from March to August next year.
While the Cheetahs are the flavour of the moment at the moment, and rightly so, it is still the Lions who end 2016 as South Africa’s top union. Although they never made the Currie Cup final and didn’t retain their trophy, they remain a formidable force when at full strength, which they should be in Super Rugby, and the potential for the good times to continue was demonstrated by both their age-group teams winning their finals against Western Province.
The Cape union missed out on a trophy for the first time in a while and appear to be slipping. Two years ago, when they won the Currie Cup, you could have said they were the leading union, but they are a long way behind the Lions now. The Bulls improved at Currie Cup level in 2016 and they are transitioning their game, yet you’d still think they should deliver more, and their age-group sides aren’t dominating like they used to, while the Sharks, for now, remain in the doldrums.
While the Lions in Super Rugby and the Cheetahs in the Currie Cup have shown the rest of the country how to play, the health of South African rugby going forward could hinge heavily on the ability of the Bulls, WP/Stormers and Sharks to get their acts together and to keep pace with the Lions. At the moment they’re falling behind.
Currie Cup final result
Toyota Free State Cheetahs 36 Vodacom Blue Bulls 16