THE Absa Currie Cup series, South Africa's premier rugby competition, has never lacked intensity - and so it will be again this season, from the kickoff tomorrow afternoon until the 2009 final on October 31.
The past few seasons have, to a large extent, been a three-horse race with the Free State Cheetahs and Blue Bulls dominating and the Sharks - current holders - being strong outsiders.
Western Province have been there or thereabouts, and the Xerox Lions have made it to the semifinals for the past three years.
A bulked-up Western Province side, the problems that have beset the Lions and a competent and well-coached Griquas team add to this season's permutations.
The Blue Bulls will probably lose seven or eight players to the national side. But their systems should ensure they will be up there again when the playoffs are decided. They have a good, solid and experienced front five with one of the country's best hookers in Derick Kuun as captain, Wilhelm Steenkamp and Flippie van der Merwe at lock, with experienced and solid loose forwards.
But their success or failure will be determined at flyhalf. Burton Francis, with a smattering of Super 14 experience, now gets the chance to prove he is ready to take control at this level.
All considered, last year's losing finalists must start as favourites to dethrone the Sharks, who, unlike the Bulls, will struggle with the loss of their Springboks.
They have plenty of talent, but coach John Plumtree might not be able to hone it into a unit before the season has run its course.
All Black Chris Jack's fire and former Xerox Lions stalwart Anton van Zyl's work ethic will in itself make for a stronger Western Province forward unit. - Sapa