Something had to give in the overcrowded rugby calendar in SA‚ and that something is the Currie Cup.
SA Rugby announced the fixtures for the 127-year-old tournament on Monday showing that the seven teams making up the premier division of the competition will only play a single round of pool fixtures. They will play only six matches before the semifinals‚ doing away with a home and away round-robin.
While there are obvious benefits in taking a less-is-more approach as well as easing the burden on players‚ it is unbalancing the format‚ as some teams will have tougher away schedules than others.
But in a competitive market‚ with player welfare and commercial considerations to balance as the tournament overlaps with the Rugby Championship and PRO14 as well as doing away with poorly attended and poorly viewed midweek games‚ it was a logical step.
The seven teams that participated in the competition last season — champions Western Province‚ the Sharks‚ Golden Lions‚ Blue Bulls‚ Free State Cheetahs‚ Pumas and Griquas — will again battle it out.
The Currie Cup Premier Division will kick off in Bloemfontein on August 17‚ when the Free State Cheetahs host the Blue Bulls. The pool stages will conclude on October 13. The local season will reach its climax with the semifinals and final in the following fortnight.
The only other match in the opening round of the Premier Division is between the Pumas and Griquas in Nelspruit on August 18.
"We regard the Currie Cup as the cornerstone of South African rugby and we are looking forward to a single pool round‚ featuring strength-versus-strength encounters‚" said SA Rugby CE Jurie Roux.
"Every match is likely to have a direct bearing on play-off places — it’ll be edge-of-the-seat stuff for the teams from tournament kick-off to the end of October‚" said Roux.
"The provinces … made certain suggestions about the format of the Currie Cup and we listened," Roux said.
Overall attendance for the 2017 Currie Cup was 330,000 — up on 2016 — while the unique TV audience was 4.5-million‚ a more than 20% increase on the previous season.
SA Rugby hopes that fewer‚ more meaningful clashes will swell the audience.
"Research from last year has shown that the Currie Cup remains a popular and critical part of the rugby landscape‚" Roux said.
"Premier Division match attendances increased by 12.5% in 2017 and viewership reversed international sporting trends by jumping 20% year on year in terms of total unique viewers‚ and the average audience was up by 55%. We believe the reduced number of fixtures will lead to even higher match attendances and higher average viewership‚ which will ensure that the competition takes centre stage."