By Mark Keohane
CAPE TOWN – The Rainbow Cup was never a replacement for Super Rugby. The birth of the expanded Pro Rugby competition has always been earmarked for September/ October of 2021. It was always going to be after the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa.
The Rainbow Cup is not the new northern hemisphere/South African competition. If anything, it was always more an irritation than inspiration for the competition’s custodians. It was a way of getting some form of rugby on television, giving the franchises some form of competition silverware to aspire to and it was also a way of providing a platform with a competitive edge for those players expected to be part of the Lions Test series.
The Rainbow Cup, in its restructured format, which has two tournaments running concurrently, one for the four South Africa franchises in South Africa and one for the Celtic franchises in the United Kingdom and Ireland, is ideal for the Springboks preparations.
There is no overseas travel involved and there is no time spent away from home in a two-month bio-bubble, with the teams based somewhere in Britain.
This works perfectly for South African Rugby’s National Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus and Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber, who over the next two months will have access to those players in the national squad who the duo has viewed as integral to the world champion Boks defeating the best of Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England.
The Rainbow Cup SA is a shortened version of the Currie Cup, but from a playing perspective it is even better because it pits strength against strength, home and away. It will be six matches of high intensity, which will double as an extended national trial, after which there will be few doubts about the form of players.
It also gives the local franchises a tangible in that there will be a trophy reward when it ends.
It may not necessarily be ideal for South African rugby fans who are desperate for variety and understandably want to see the SA teams measured against those from up north.
Patience is currently required and there also has to be an understanding of the Covid uncontrollable around why the Rainbow Cup had to be split into two tournaments. SA Rugby explored every avenue to give the local rugby fan an international tournament, pre the Lions visit. It practically wasn’t doable.
The next best thing was a local tournament, which on reflection is actually the best thing.
The most important event in South African rugby this year is the three-Test series versus the Lions. They are only in South Africa every 12 years and most South African players get only one Test opportunity against the Lions in a career.
Frans Steyn, Morne Steyn and Ruan Pienaar could be a rare and elite trio who add a second Lions experience to their playing CVs.
The Lions is the biggest rugby event in the world outside of the World Cup, which is played every four years.
Nothing in South African rugby matters more this season than the Lions and the Rainbow Cup SA will now ensure the most complete national squad preparation.
There can’t be any excuses. The players will be battle hardened, the national leadership will get to align their strategic thinking with each of the four franchise coaches and there can be a like for like comparison of who ranks one, two, three and four per position as Erasmus and Nienaber look to settle on a second run on XV that matches the first choice starting XV in strength and quality.
Player depth will be decisive in the series outcome.
For me, the competition also will show who is the No 8 Bok option should the incomparable Duane Vermeulen not be available, as No 8 is the one area in which the gulf between Vermeulen and the rest is massive.