Tough times for gambling men

The climax to one of the most fiercely-contested Absa Currie Cups in history is just around the corner, and yet there are few who can pick an outright winner with any certainty.

Former Springbok coach Nick Mallett told Keo.co.za that he’s tipping
the Cheetahs to win by five, largely because of home ground advantage. But he added it wasn’t a call he made with the greatest of confidence.

“It is easier to call most international matches than a South African
domestic final,” he said. “You could argue that man for man the Bulls
are better, but as a unit the Cheetahs have been outstanding this year and Rassie Erasmus has been extremely influential in ensuring a second successive final since he took over as coach.

“I worked with Rassie when he was an international player and always found him to be the exception when it came to technical analysis. It is fantastic for SA rugby that he has taken this skill into a coaching capacity and he now has to be nurtured because he is a special coaching talent.”

Erasmus’s technical nous has already secured the Vodacom Cheetahs one title in 2005. After establishing a winning game plan and developing depth in the round robin stages, the Free State side are now very strong candidates to finish with another. The champs ended the 2006 league at the top of the log, and have scored 609 points to date in the competition, topping the try stakes with 79.

They also possess the best defensive record in the tournament, conceding only 35 tries, a feat that is shared by their opponents, the Vodacom Blue Bulls.

The Bulls have proved to be more than a strong defensive unit, scoring 68 tries in 15 games, with a grand total of 524 points. As Mallett suggests, they may outmatch the Cheetahs head to head, but there is another factor that balances the scales of dominance, namely their recent form against the champs. Apart from last year’s final, the Bulls haven’t lost a domestic game to the Cheetahs since 2002, which adds up to a record of one loss in 10 matches.

The Pretoria-based side have also enjoyed a successful run at Vodacom Park, having won their last four games in the Free State heartland. At both venues over the last 10 encounters, the Bulls have beaten the Cheetahs by 10 points or less on five occasions, indicating their ability to close out those tight games.

The two teams have met in seven Currie Cup finals before, with the Bulls winning six of those and the Cheetahs only once in 2005. Two of these Bulls victories were in Bloemfontein.

The Bulls have also won 18 finals in 28 appearances, which excludes three draws. The Cheetahs have a poorer record in the finals, with only two titles to show for their 10 appearances.

The Cheetahs have had the tougher run in to the final, having had to play the Sharks, the Bulls, and the Sharks once again in the playoffs. Fatigue will play its part, but this is where the Erasmus element comes into play, as the management of his players has been extremely effective thus far.

The Bulls have enjoyed a less taxing run up to the final. Besides the Cheetahs match in Game 14, fixtures against Griquas and the comparatively gentle WP forward pack has left them far less battered than the champs.

But once again this raises the counterargument that Erasmus’s charges have built invaluable momentum throughout the tougher fixtures and should be better prepared for the impending scrap on Saturday.

For the neutral with nothing at stake this promises to be a thrilling encounter that could go either way. For gambling men placing their bets according to various aspects mentioned above, it will be a nerve-wracking match for a very different reason.

RECENT RESULTS IN BLOEM:

2006: Cheetahs 12 Bulls 24
2005: Cheetahs 22 Bulls 26
2004: Cheetahs 27 Bulls 27
2003: Cheetahs 24 Bulls 51
2002: Cheetahs 35 Bulls 29
2001: Cheetahs 42 Bulls 20

FINALS BETWEEN THE TEAMS:

1973: Northern Transvaal vs Orange Free State, 30-23 in Pretoria
1975: Northern Transvaal vs Orange Free State, 12-6 in Bloem
1977: Northern Transvaal vs Orange Free State, 27-12 in Pretoria
1978: Northern Transvaal vs Orange Free State, 13-9 in Bloem
1981: Northern Transvaal vs Orange Free State, 23-6 in Pretoria
2004: Blue Bulls vs Cheetahs, 42-33 in Pretoria
2005: Cheetahs vs Blue Bulls, 29-25 in Pretoria

By Jon Cardinelli