The omission of the Springboks has leveled the Currie Cup playing field and placed a greater emphasis on this weekend’s big match-ups.
With the Boks away, a few sides will target these crunch games as a golden opportunity to garner points. Given how tight the race was last year, this could prove decisive by the end of the season.
The Sharks host Western Province on Friday in what is not strictly a derby but more of an intense coastal rivalry. The Cheetahs play Griquas tomorrow afternoon while the Lions will travel up to Pretoria to take on the Bulls. While the rugby world focuses on the pivotal Vodacom Tri-Nations match in Sydney, the Currie Cup will finally be kicking on as a competition.
The Cheetahs are five points clear of the second-placed Bulls, and another win will give them a comfortable cushion before they meet the other four South African powerhouses in succession. The Lions, Bulls and WP will all be jousting for second-place, while Griquas also have a chance of claiming this position if they force another upset in Bloemfontein. The Sharks will be glad to get on the board, while the winner of the Valke-Boland clash will make good ground towards avoiding the wooden spoon.
WP won well against the Lions in their opening game, but followed it up with an absolute howler of a defeat to Boland. The Sharks had a bye in the first week of the competition and were then comprehensively beaten by Loffie Eloff’s men in Johannesburg.
As the newly appointed coach, John Plumtree will be keen to register some points in the win column and deny Province a victory in Durban. WP have intimated the desire to outmuscle the Sharks in the tight given the lack of experience which was showcased last week. The synergy of the respective back rows will also be key, with Luke Watson set to make a big difference for the visitors. This will be the Currie Cup match-up of the weekend, with both teams desperate to redeem themselves for last week’s losses.
The Cheetahs have had a gradual introduction to this year’s Currie Cup, scoring two comfortable wins over Boland and the Valke respectively. Griquas are not normally considered one of the bigger teams, but after trouncing the Bulls in Kimberley, they should present Free State with their first real challenge of the season. Naka Drotske expects an onslaught up front and has asked his charges to up the intensity. If the Cheetahs gain early possession and control the game through their superior line-out, Griquas may battle to find a response.
The match on the Highveld promises to be a real thriller, with Pote Human’s charges smarting after their defeat against Griquas. Although that loss cannot be compared to Province’s dismal showing against Boland, the Bulls will realise the need to up their game and prevent the Lions from picking up a second successive win.
The Lions looked solid against WP and were fantastic against the Sharks, but are still failing to finish to a more telling degree. It was this facet of the game which cost them at Newlands, as they had several try-scoring opportunities that would have nudged them ahead at vital periods and ultimately won them the game. They are looking good in the set-pieces and at the breakdown, and even if the Bulls do manage to secure first-phase possession and implement their 10-man game it may not be enough with Cobus Grobbelaar and Ernst Joubert dominating on the ground.
The fourth match in Brakpan is of great importance to the two minnows. Boland will be flying high after toppling Province, but even though the Valke lost to the Cheetahs by 45-11 last Friday they showed enough to suggest they are capable of a 15-man game. Boland have a lot of flair in the backs, and while it will be an intense battle up front it should also be an exciting contest with both teams looking to give the ball some air.
Sharks vs WP – WP by 3 or less
Valke vs Boland – Boland by 5 or more
Cheetahs vs Griquas – Cheetahs by 10 or more
Blue Bulls vs Lions – Lions by 5 or less
By Jon Cardinelli