The Free State Cheetahs will begin the defence of their domestic Currie Cup title this weekend as the South African provincial championship gets under way on Friday night.
But questions remain over just what sort of side the Cheetahs will be able to put out in the latter stages of the competition, with their participation in Celtic Rugby’s PRO12, which gets under way in September, set to be rubber-stamped in the next week.
The same rings true for the Eastern Province Kings, though they are not in the Currie Cup’s Premier Division this season and will instead contest the First Division with the minor provinces.
The decision of SA Rugby to return to a seven-team Premier Division from nine last year is aimed at raising the level of the competition by having more strength-vs-strength clashes.
And SA Rugby have also re-introduced relegation for the bottom-placed side in the Premier Division.
“Returning to a seven-team Premier Division format, with all teams facing each other home and away, will bring about a more intense, strength-versus-strength competition, and the fact that we’ve re-introduced a promotion challenge series between the winner of the First Division against the last-placed Premier Division team, will add to the excitement,” SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux said recently.
The Cheetahs begin their campaign at home to the Sharks on Friday under new coach Rory Duncan, who has swapped roles with Franco Smith as the latter takes up the position of Director of Rugby at the union.
After a tough Super Rugby season in which they largely disappointed, and with the prospect of an arduous campaign to come in Europe later in the year, Duncan might have sought to rest some players.
But he has gone in largely with a first team selection that is captained by centre Francois Venter.
Western Province, the most successful side in Currie Cup history with 33 tournament wins, have a bye through the first round of matches, leaving two other games to be played.
Kimberley-based Griquas will host the ailing Blue Bulls from Pretoria on Saturday evening, while there is also a clash on Sunday as the Nelspruit-based Pumas entertain the Golden Lions from Johannesburg.
The first three rounds of the competition overlap with the playoffs in Super Rugby, and it remains to be seen whether many of the Springbok will play any part in the competition with the Rugby Championship getting under way on August 19.
The top four sides in the Premier League will contest the semifinals this season, with the final set to be played on October 28.
The trophy has been shared around in the last decade, with the Sharks winning three titles, Western Province, the Cheetahs and Golden Lions two each, and the Bulls gaining a single tournament win.
The Currie Cup is one of the oldest rugby competitions in the world, with matches first played in 1889.
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