Despite 50-odd frontline players having been removed from the Currie Cup stage, South Africa's premier domestic competition will remain a fiercely contested event ... with passion and emotion running as high as ever.
There is an delectable twist to the plot this year - it offers a host of young stars the opportunity to step into the limelight.
Blue Bulls captain and veteran hooker Gary Botha, one of the few old hands on display in the Currie Cup, feels the absence of so many players will not detract from the competition - which gets underway this week.
It all starts on Friday when the Golden Lions host the Pumas in Johannesburg. Saturday sees three Round One matches take place - Western Province versus Griquas in Cape Town, Free State Cheetahs against the Leopards in Bloemfontein and then the match of the weekend, the Sharks hosting the Blue Bulls in Durban.
With 23 national team players ruled out through injury from the Australasian leg of the Tri-Nations, to go with the 28 that will tour, it means the competition is deprived of more than 50 high-profile players.
Even after the Boks return from abroad and going into the World Cup, the 30 top players - not even taking into consideration any possible injuries - will still be absent.
However, the 29-year-old Botha felt the Currie Cup may well be a more open contest, and will not lack in excitement.
"The Currie Cup is traditionally a very emotional competition in South Africa," the 2007 World Cup-winning Bok hooker said.
"South Africans love their tradition and the Currie Cup remains one of the most sought-after competitions ... regardless of the situation.
"However, the greatest aspect is that, like in 2003 and 2007 when the Boks were also away during the Tri-Nations and at the World Cup, it will provide opportunities and more game time for up-and-coming young players.
"We can get a glimpse of the future of rugby in South Africa and that is one of the great aspects of this Currie Cup."
The Bulls - three time Super Rugby champions and five Currie Cup titles in the last decade (23 overall) - will be in a position of transition themselves.
They have senior players like Bakkies Botha, Fourie Du Preez, Victor Matfield, Danie Rossouw and Gurthrö Steenkamp all moving on.
However, the team's Currie Cup captain, Botha, is adamant the team from Pretoria can be more than just competitive.
"It is a chance for young guys to put their hands up and show what they are worth when they get their opportunities," he said.
"Luckily there are still a few senior players around to show them the ropes, but at the end of the day it is up to them to put their hands up.
"In your career you only get a certain number of chances and it depends on you if you use them or not.
"Hopefully the young guys will come through and use the opportunity and hopefully at the Bulls we are fortunate enough to benefit from this."
Speaking about the captaincy, a job he has handled with aplomb before, Botha described it as a "privilege and an honour" to lead the Bulls.
"It is also a huge responsibility, but I have been in this situation [captaincy] before," he said, adding: "Luckily for me there are other strong leaders like Dewald Potgieter [Emerging Boks captain versus B&I Lions], Derick Kuün [Southern Kings versus B&I Lions] and Jaco Pretorius [Bok Sevens captain] around me that can help.
"That certainly makes it easier. Derick [Kuün] was also Currie Cup captain, which helps.
"However, the most important factor is that the structures at the Bulls remain the same and that makes life easier for the players."
Asked about Saturday's encounter with the Sharks in Durban, Botha said he expected a typical derby.
"As always it will be a tough battle," the hooker said, adding: "The Sharks and Bulls have been having some huge battles for many years now.
"Our goal is to go to Durban and have a good start to the Currie Cup season.
"We have to execute our plays effectively and do a great job and ensure we all get into the same structures very quickly."
By Jan de Koning
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