Peak performers

Keo, in his News24 column, picks his Absa Currie Cup winners and losers.

You can wait until the comfort of Saturday night, once the semi-finalists are confirmed, to pick a 2006 Currie Cup winner or you can be a bit more daring and make the call now. Come on be daring.

One team of the top five is going to miss out and it is going to be the Lions. Brave and brilliant in the last seven matches, the Lions will curse their early season experiments that cost them easy points. Lesson learned by Eugene Eloff who will not easily again surrender league points to prove a point to his senior players.

Eloff will argue it worked and he got the best out of his older hands. But he got the best out of them a week too late and his team is four league points off where they should have been.

That leaves four teams for the playoffs and all that has to be determined is who ends in the top spot and who will have to travel to the home of that team.

The Cheetahs will lose in Pretoria on Saturday but still end top of the table, with the Bulls, victors but not with the bonus point, ending second on points difference from Western Province who’ll take the five league points at Newlands. The Sharks will hammer the Falcons to set up another trip to Bloemfontein and a semi-final exit from the competition.

The Sharks, my early season call to win the competition, have mixed and matched so much this season that they cost themselves a home semi-final and with that any chance of winning the competition. It is a disappointing ending to a season that proved a heartbreaker in the Super 14. The Currie Cup let down, though, is self inflicted and while the Sharks may argue they’ve simply used the Currie Cup as squad preparation for the 2007 Super 14, the rationale shouldn’t convince the board. This was a domestic campaign that should have ensured greater rewards.

The Sharks can’t beat the Cheetahs at the moment. It has nothing to do with ability and the psychology of three successive defeats this year, coupled with last season’s Currie Cup struggles, will prove too draining in a fortnight. Also, don’t discount the loss of AJ Venter. The Sharks are poorer when he is not there.

If the Sharks selectors played Brent Russell at flyhalf I’d probably have to eat humble pie, but if they haven’t played the pocket rocket there for two seasons, why would they start now?

In the other semi-final match-up Western Province will travel to Loftus and this time there won’t be an ambush. Province, inspired by Luke Watson, have twice stolen wins from the Bulls. But in Cape Town they played all their ‘get out of jail’ cards and to beat the Bulls for a second time at Loftus they’d need 15 Watson’s. As it is they’ve got only the one.

I’m tipping the Bulls to win on Saturday, win against Province the next week and then travel to Bloemfontein and set the record straight for last season’s defeat to the Cheetahs in the final.

Revenge will be all the sweeter because they will achieve the win in Bloemfontein.

No team can peak throughout a tournament and you sense Province and the Cheetahs are wobbling now, when it matters most. The Sharks, with an extravagant rotation policy, never allowed for a peak period, while the Bulls, like the Crusaders in Super rugby, wobbled just at the right time.

The Bulls campaign this season has reminded me of many Crusaders campaigns. Just when they looked buried in the league stages, they turned it on and entered the playoffs on a high, capable of destroying any team regardless of where the match is played.

So if you’re a betting man, get the odds on a Bulls Currie Cup final win and spend some cash. For those, like me, who spent their money on the Sharks some months ago, accept the cash is lost.