GARETH DUNCAN previews this weekend’s action and predicts who will face off in the semi-finals.
SHARKS vs GRIQUAS, DURBAN, FRI 19:10
While Griquas earned a 22-15 win over the Sharks in Kimberley, the Northern Cape minnows will come up against a stronger outfit on Friday night.
John Plumtree has gained significant reinforcements in recents weeks, with players returning from injury and Springbok duty.
Wing JP Pietersen still has his hot Super Rugby form despite spending several weeks on the sidelines because of a broken thumb. The speedster played a key role in the 37-30 win over the Cheetahs in Free State last weekend.
Tim Whitehead’s return from injury sees him partner Paul Jordaan in the midfield. The duo create an exciting centre pairing, and will expose any weaknesses in the opposition defence. To think this is their second-choice centre combination as Frans Steyn will be back next season.
Pat Lambie might still be aching from all the splinters he picked up on the bench during the Rugby Championship, but he’ll be raring to start at flyhalf and prove his worth in the run-on XV.
Skipper Keagan Daniel has been in good form in the Currie Cup since being dropped from the Springbok squad, and he’ll lead a pack that has impressed over the last fortnight.
The Sharks will also have four Boks to call on from the bench in the second half.
Griquas shocked the Lions with a second-half comeback in Kimberley, but they’ll struggle to stay afloat at the Shark Tank against a side that boasts plenty of quality.
The Sharks will cruise to victory and the top spot on the log.
Sharks – 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Tim Whitehead, 11 JP Pietersen, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Keegan Daniel (c), 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Jandré Marais, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Kyle Cooper, 1 Dale Chadwick.
Subs: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Jannie du Plessis, 18 Peet Marais, 19 Marcell Coetzee, 20 Charl McLeod, 21 Meyer Bosman, 22 Lwazi Mvovo.
Griquas – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Jannie Boshoff, 13 Jean Stemmet, 12 Walter Venter, 11 Rocco Jansen, 10 Francois Brummer, 9 Marnus Hugo, 8 Leon Karemaker, 7 Justin Downey, 6 Marnus Schoeman, 5 Martin Muller, 4 Rynard Landman, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Ryno Barnes (c), 1 Steph Roberts.
Subs: 16 Matthew Dobson, 17 Ivann Espag, 18 Edwin Hewitt, 19 Wesley Wilkins, 20 Jacques Coetzee, 21 Marnitz Boshoff, 22 Richard Lawson.
Gareth’s prediction: Sharks by 15
WP vs FREE STATE CHEETAHS, CAPE TOWN, SAT 17:05
A young WP outfit were outplayed by the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld last weekend, but their returning Springboks have boosted the Cape side tremendously.
Where there was once a lack of experience, Province now have the likes of inside centre Jean de Villiers, wing Bryan Habana, No 8 Duane Vermeulen, lock Andries Bekker and hooker Tiaan Liebenberg playing leadership roles. Outside centre Juan de Jongh and lock Eben Etzebeth will also make telling contributions.
Free State have benefited from Bok hooker Adriaan Strauss and prop Coenie Oosthuizen’s availability, but injuries will still see the Cheetahs struggle at Newlands.
They’ll miss flyhalf Johan Goosen (knee) as Sias Ebersohn has been inconsistent in the No 10 jersey. Free State will also have a weakened second row and loose trio, which should see them struggle in the forwards battle.
Without regular front foot momentum, the Cheetahs’ backline will be restricted. They’ll depend on outside centre Robert Ebersohn and wing Raymond Rhule to create some magic, but that won’t be enough.
WP will be too strong for the visitors, and a win will see them avoid the unlikely threat of relegation and seal their semi-final place.
This will see Free State finish last on the log. Without a win, the Cheetahs will need two bonus points to secure safety. However, this will be highly unlikely against South Africa’s best defensive unit. First Division league winners the EP Kings will be waiting for the Bloemfontein team in the promotion-relegation play-offs.
WP – 15 Joe Pietersen, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Jean de Villiers (c), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Don Armand, 6 Deon Fourie, 5 Andries Bekker, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Tiaan Liebenberg, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Subs: 16 Scarra Ntubeni, 17 Brok Harris, 18 De Kock Steenkamp, 19 Jebb Sinclair, 20 Louis Schreuder, 21 Marcel Brache, 22 Gio Aplon.
Free State Cheetahs – 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Nico Scheepers, 13 Robert Ebersohn, 12 Andries Strauss, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Francois Uys, 6 Hendro Scholtz, 5 Izak van der Westhuizen, 4 Carl Wegner, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Marcel van der Merwe.
Subs: 16 Hercu Liebenberg, 17 Ross Geldenhuys, 18 Waltie Vermeulen, 19 Davon Raubenheimer, 20 Tewis de Bruyn, 21 Philip Snyman, 22 Ryno Benjamin.
Gareth’s prediction: WP by 12
GOLDEN LIONS vs BLUE BULLS, JOHANNESBURG, SAT 19:10
The Golden Lions have made this an easier challenge for the visiting Blue Bulls.
While Johan Ackermann hasn’t picked an out-and-out second string side, it’s still a weakened team. With the Lions already guaranteed a home semi-final, they can afford to rest utility back Jaco Taute and prop JC Janse van Rensburg, and bench the likes of lock Franco van der Merwe, flyhalf Elton Jantjies and speedster Lionel Mapoe.
Springbok props Pat Cilliers and CJ van der Linde will give the Lions a quality front row, but the Bulls have a strong team to match and outclass the hosts in most positional match-ups.
The Pretoria union will start six of its returning Springboks (to the rejoices of under-fire head coach Pine Pienaar). The Bulls have reportedly struggled without 22 first-choice players for most of their campaign, but will field a near Super Rugby-strength line-up at Ellis Park on Saturday.
The major returns are flyhalf Morne Steyn and the Bok lock combination of Juandre Kruger and Flip van der Merwe. They’ll play key roles during the Bulls’ pursuit for victory.
The forwards battle will be a close one. The Lions’ success in the Currie Cup this season has come through their ability to poach ball regularly and dominate the set-pieces. The Bulls need to secure the ascendancy up front if they want to win this one. The respective loose trios will be huge in this regard.
The Lions are weakened, but will still be competitive. However, the Bulls have more than enough firepower to earn the win that will save them from relegation and sneak them into the play-offs.
Golden Lions – 15 Ruan Combrinck, 14 Deon Helberg, 13 Deon van Rensburg, 12 Alwyn Hollenbach, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Butch James (c), 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Willie Britz, 7 Derick Minnie, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Paul Willemse, 4 Michael Rhodes, 3 Pat Cilliers, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 CJ van der Linde.
Subs: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Jacobie Adriaanse, 18 Franco van der Merwe, 19 Warren Whiteley, 20 Whestley Moolman, 21 Elton Jantjies, 22 Lionel Mapoe.
Blue Bulls – 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Morne Steyn, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Arno Botha, 7 Jacques Potgieter, 6 Dewald Potgieter (c), 5 Flip van der Merwe, 4 Juandré Kruger, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Willie Wepener, 1 Morne Mellett.
Subs: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Frik Kirsten, 18 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 19 CJ Stander, 20 Francois Hougaard, 21 Louis Fouche, 22 Dean Greyling.
Gareth’s prediction: Blue Bulls by 8
SEMI-FINALS (NEXT WEEKEND):
Sharks vs Blue Bulls
Golden Lions vs WP
Free State Cheetahs vs EP Kings