GARETH DUNCAN analyses this weekend’s play-offs.
SHARKS vs BLUE BULLS, DURBAN, SAT 16:30
These two teams have enjoyed the returns of several Springboks, which contributed to their wins last weekend. However, I think John Plumtree’s management of his Test players will be key in what happens at Kings Park.
Plumtree learnt a hard lesson in last year’s final at Ellis Park as his fatigued Boks, who had returned from the World Cup a fortnight before, were rushed into the starting XV and failed to make an impact. The Lions won that title decider 42-16.
However, this year, the Kiwi coach has eased his Test players back into the team and has rewarded the others who made telling contributions to the Sharks’ run to the top of log with starting spots.
The Sharks have the best backline in the competition, and they have an in-form, young halfback pair in Cobus Reinach and Pat Lambie to spearhead them. The hosts also have a strong pack, and the returns of tighthead prop Jannie du Plessis and flank Marcell Coetzee are valuable promotions to the forwards this weekend.
The Bulls have a near-Super Rugby strength side available, but they can’t afford the start they experienced against the Lions. They’re facing the Sharks, who are the best attacking team of the competition and boast the best defensive record.
The Bulls will need to get early momentum, and this will depend heavily on their forwards and the performance of flyhalf Morné Steyn. Considering their poor domestic run this year, it would be a massive achievement.
However, the Sharks should be good enough to restrict the visitors and end their hopes of a fairytale turnaround in this year’s Currie Cup.
Sharks – 15 Louis Ludik, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Tim Whitehead, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Keegan Daniel (c), 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Jandré Marais, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Kyle Cooper, 1 Dale Chadwick.
Subs: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Tendai Mtawarira, 18 Wiehahn Herbst, 19 Steven Sykes/Peet Marais, 20 Willem Alberts, 21 Charl McLeod, 22 Meyer Bosman.
Blue Bulls – 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Arno Botha, 7 Jacques Potgieter, 6 Dewald Potgieter (c), 5 Juandré Kruger, 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Willie Wepener, 1 Morné Mellett.
Subs: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Frik Kirsten, 18 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 19 CJ Stander, 20 Francois Hougaard, 21 Louis Fouché, 22 Dean Greyling.
Gareth’s prediction: Sharks by 12
GOLDEN LIONS vs WP, JOHANNESBURG, SAT 19:00
Both teams will have fresh memories of the Lions’ 22-9 victory at Newlands a fortnight ago. But this will be a stronger Province team the Johannesburg union will be facing this weekend.
WP cruised to victory against the Cheetahs at home during the last league round, thanks to the return of their seven Springboks. The likes of Tiaan Liebenberg, Andries Bekker, Duane Vermeulen, Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers and Juan de Jongh added much-needed grunt and bolstered the side.
However, the loss of De Villiers, Liebenberg and Bekker to injury will be telling. I don’t think Marcel Brache and De Kock Steenkamp are good enough to fill the gaps left by the players they’ve replaced. Siyabonga Ntubeni isn’t as imposing as Liebenberg, but he has impressed me during the Currie Cup this season and Allister Coetzee will hope the youngster does a good job on match day.
Province will need their heavies to front their battle as they come up against the strongest pack of the Currie Cup. The Lions rested the likes of JC Janse van Rensburg, Jacobie Adriaanse and Franco van der Merwe last weekend, and will come out firing at Ellis Park.
The strengths of the Lions have been their set-piece execution and their ability to slow down and poach ball at the breakdowns. If they can replicate that form this weekend, they’ll have the platform to beat WP.
Expect both flyhalves to play a vital role with the boot.
Golden Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Jaco Taute, 12 Alwyn Hollenbach, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Michael Bondesio, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Jaco Kriel, 6 Cobus Grobbelaar, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Michael Rhodes, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg (c).
Subs:: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 CJ van der Linde, 18 Hendrik Roodt, 19 Derick Minnie, 20 Ross Cronje, 21 Butch James, 22 Deon Helberg.
Western Province – 15 Gio Aplon, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Marcel Brache, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Don Armand, 6 Deon Fourie (c), 5 De Kock Steenkamp, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Siyabonga Ntubeni, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Subs: 16 Deon Carstens, 17 Brok Harris, 18 Wilhelm van der Sluys, 19 Jebb Sinclair, 20 Louis Schreuder, 21 Damian de Allende, 22 Joe Pietersen.
Gareth’s prediction: Lions by 5
PROMOTION-RELEGATION PLAY-OFF, 1ST LEG
FREE STATE CHEETAHS vs EP KINGS, BLOEMFONTEIN, FRI 19:10
Usually, Free State would’ve been the easy pick to win this contest.
But losing 13 first-choice players is an injury crisis most teams would struggle with. Their inconsistent form on the domestic stage this season is also a concern. However, they still have a team strong enough to beat the First Division champions at home.
Free State will target the forward battle. The return of flanker Lappies Labuschagne is a major boost for the loose trio, while Adriaan Strauss will be a key feature in the front row. If the hosts gain the ascendancy up front, their dangerous backline will cause some problems for EP.
The Kings have lost five players to injury over the last fortnight, with the big blows being in-form skipper Luke Watson and lock Darron Nell. The men from PE also struggled under pressure against a physical Pumas outfit last weekend, and they’ll face a stronger unit in the Cheetahs, who have some hard men up front.
Free State should win the first leg, but the interesting fixture will be the second play-off in PE next weekend.
EP Kings (First Division) WWWWWDWWWWWWDWWWWW
Cheetahs – 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Nico Scheepers, 13 Robert Ebersohn, 12 Andries Strauss, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Phillip van der Walt, 7 Lappies Labuschagne, 6 Hendro Scholtz, 5 Izak van der Merwe, 4 Francois Uys, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Marcel van der Merwe
Subs: 16 Hercu Liebenberg, 17 Schalk van der Merwe, 18 Carl Wegner, 19 Davon Ruabenheimer, 20 Tewis du Bruyn, 21 Phillip Snyman, 22 Rayno Benjamin.
EP Kings – 15 SP Marais, 14 Paul Perez, 13 Wayne Stevens (c), 12 Shane Gates, 11 Michael Killian 10 Wesley Dunlop, 9 Falie Oelschig, 8 Cornell Du Preez, 7 Wimpie van der Walt, 6 Devin Oosthuizen, 5 David Bullbring, 4 Reynier Bernardo, 3 Clint Newland, 2 Hannes Franklin, 1 Jaco Engels.
Subs: 16 Frank Herne, 17 Andre Schlechter, 18 Wayne van Heerden, 19 Mpho Mbiyozo, 20 Scott Mathie, 21 George Whitehead, 22 Norman Nelson.
Gareth’s prediction: Free State by 10