GARETH DUNCAN analyses the key match-ups and picks the winners for Saturday’s Currie Cup semi-finals.
SHARKS vs CHEETAHS, DURBAN, 14:30
Why the Sharks will win: While most South Africans are still mourning the Springboks’ World Cup quarter-final exit, John Plumtree will be overjoyed with the reinforcements he’s gained over the past fortnight. And for this semi-final fixture, the Kiwi coach has brought out his big guns. He’s selected an all-Bok front row (including the best all-round hooker in the game Bismarck du Plessis), powerhouse Willem Alberts, a game breaker in JP Pietersen and a playmaker in Pat Lambie. They all fall into a side that boasts the second-best defensive record in the Currie Cup this season (they have only conceded three more points than WP) and will also strengthen their attacking capabilities. The Achilles heel in this Sharks team is their midfield – a combination that has failed to fire throughout this campaign. Plumtree has selected veterans Marius Joubert and Stefan Terblanche to take charge, but they’ll have to pick up their game to have the upper hand against the younger combination of Andries Strauss and Robert Ebersohn. Despite this, however, the Sharks should still have too much class to lose to the visiting Cheetahs. Barring the centres, this is arguably the strongest team in the Currie Cup.
Why the Cheetahs will win: There’s major hype around the return of 19-year-old flyhalf Johan Goosen to the Cheetahs’ run-on side. And rightfully so – he’s been a standout performer in his debut senior season on attack and with the boot. Although he has a lack of experience, he has the attributes to be a match-winner. The main concern is if he’ll be able to last 60 minutes as he’s been taken off around the half-time mark because of injury more than once in his last six games. Sias Ebersohn will be expected to play a ‘super sub’ role off the bench. While Goosen will be crucial to the Cheetahs’ chances, their loose trio also have a vital role to play. The Sharks showed what they’re capable of against the Lions last weekend once they gained the ascendancy up front. Boom Prinsloo, Ashley Johnson and Lappies Labuschagne will have the responsibility of halting the Sharks’ momentum at the breakdowns and tackle points. The battle between skipper Adriaan Strauss (who would be a regular Test hooker in any other country) and opposite number Bismarck du Plessis will also be immense. However, the Cheetahs’ defensive record at the death this season is a major concern. In hindsight, it’s a problem that’s cost them a home semi-final. It’s unlikley they’ll be able to fix that problem in a week – they are likely to fold in the second stanza.
Gareth’s call: Sharks by 12
Sharks – 15 Pat Lambie, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Stefan Terblanche, 12 Marius Joubert, 11 JP Pietersen, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Conrad Hoffmann, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Keegan Daniel (c), 5 Ross Skeate, 4 Jean Deysel/Anton Bresler, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Eugene van Staden, 18 Marcell Coetzee, 19 Jacques Botes, 20 Ross Cronje, 21 Adi Jacobs, 22 Lwazi Mvovo
Cheetahs – 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Ryno Benjamin, 13 Robert Ebersohn, 12 Andries Strauss, 11 Cameron Jacobs, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Boom Prinsloo, 7 Ashley Johnson, 6 Lappies Labuschagne, 5 Izak van der Westhuizen, 4 Philip van der Walt, 3 WP Nel, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Marcel van der Merwe.
Subs: 16 Hercu Liebenberg, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 19 Johan Wessels, 20 Tewis de Bruyn, 21 Sias Ebersohn, 22 Nico Scheepers.
LIONS vs WP, JOHANNESBURG, 17:00
Why the Lions will win: Credit must be given to the Lions for their Currie Cup campaign. While the competition field was weakened by the absence of the Springboks, staying at the top of the log for the entire campaign is no easy feat. However, their recent form is a concern, having only won one match in their last four fixtures. That win did come against WP, but they’ll be up against a stronger team this week. It also includes a 53-9 drubbing at the hands of the Sharks last weekend. Allister Coetzee said midweek that nothing can be taken out of that match because John Mitchell made several changes for their trip to Durban. But what can be noted is once the Lions pack is dominated, they struggle. The Lions’ forwards have been central to their domestic success this season, and will need a strong showing if they want to host the final next weekend. You can expect a brave first-half performance up front, but they’ll need to maintain that momentum after the break. Mitchell has also decided to keep Elton Jantjies as his 10 ahead of Springbok Butch James. Jantjies hasn’t been as consistent this season as he was last year, especially with the boot. He’ll need a big performance, and will have the important job of spearheading his team that will face a strong WP backline.
Why WP will win: Province are keen on breaking their six-year domestic losing streak at Ellis Park, and they’ll have their strongest possible team to do so. With six Boks in their run-on side, they look the better team on paper. The main question will be: can their heavies play a commanding role? Against the Pumas last weekend, they faltered in the scrums and their defence has been uncharacteristically shaky in the latter stages of the league phase. They can’t afford that against the Jozi mongrels. If the forwards can win the ascendancy, then half the battle will be won. Coetzee will be hoping his halfback combination of UCT scrumhalf Nick Groom and flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis can step up to the occasion – this is no Varsity Cup playoff. They have looked impressive this year and will be relieved to be facing Jantjies and not the physical James. WP will hope Catrakilis can last the 80 minutes on this occasion, considering Gio Aplon and Conrad Jantjes are the back-up pivots. The midfield of Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie will be instrumental in the way the backline performs and Aplon will be a huge threat in the back three if the game loosens up.
Gareth’s call: WP by 7
Lions – 15 Jaco Taute, 14 Deon Van Rensburg, 13 Doppies la Grange, 12 Alwyn Hollenbach, 11 Michael Killian, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Michael Bondesio, 8 Joshua Strauss (c), 7 Michael Rhodes, 6 Derick Minnie, 5 Franco Van der Merwe, 4 Wikus van Heerden, 3 Pat Cilliers, 2 Bandise Maku, 1 CJ Van der Linde.
Subs: 16 Martin Bezuidenhout, 17 Jacobie Adriaanse, 18 Warren Whiteley, 19 Cobus Grobbelaar/Jaco Kriel, 20 Butch James, 21 Dylan des Fountain, 22 James Kamana.
WP – 15 Gio Aplon, 14 JJ Engelbrecht, 13 Jaque Fourie, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Nick Koster, 7 Siya Kolisi, 6 Schalk Burger (c), 5 De Kock Steenkamp, 4 Adriaan Fondse, 3 Brok Harris, 2 Tiaan Liebenberg, 1 JC Kritzinger.
Subs: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Frans Malherbe, 18 Tertius Daniller, 19 Pieter Louw, 20 Louis Schreuder, 21 Juan de Jongh, 22 Conrad Jantjes.