A watershed day looms for WP
The Absa Currie Cup isn’t as meaningful as it used to be when it comes to determining pecking order in South African rugby, but it remains a significant enough event for Western Province to be feeling the pressure as they head into Saturday’s north/south showdown with the Blue Bulls.
Coach Allister Coetzee took pains to point out this week that his team has only lost two games in three, and both the matches they lost were ones they should have won on the balance of play. He said there was no need to look at the situation as a crisis, and he was right.
But while that argument should arguably hold true even if WP don’t make the semifinals this year – building depth for next year’s Super Rugby is really what Currie Cup these days is all about – slipping to three losses in four starts could have the impact of halting the work that should be being done by Province at this stage of the 2012 rugby season.
And that work can be described as the shaking off of some of the shackles imposed by the defensive mindset and finding the balance between offense and defence that will make the Stormers more of a threat in next year’s Super Rugby. For what they cannot afford is for last week’s game against the Lions to be a microcosm of how their domestic season turns out.
They started well in Johannesburg, playing some of their finest attacking rugby of the season. What was noticeable though was that the instant that the Lions came back at them and back into the game, it was as if the default mechanism set in. Under pressure it was back to safety first defensive tactics, they were no longer prepared to chance their arm, and the remainder of the game was like watching the Stormers in Super Rugby.
Already this week Coetzee has been quick to point out to critics that his team is trying to play more attacking rugby and yet suddenly they are in a situation where they have lost two games in three in the Currie Cup. They only lost that many matches in the whole of the Super Rugby league season.
BACK ON THE BIKE
Coetzee will deny this, but his quickness to bring up that point is a disturbing possible harbinger of where WP could go if they lose on Saturday – in other words back into their shells, which will leave the Currie Cup as a write-off in the sense that it has any potential to grow the Stormers game. It may not be the intention to change back now, but pressure does make people do strange things, and force them into the conservative option.
At home WP should start as favourites, but the Bulls did show against the Sharks last week what they are capable of and they won’t be easy to beat.
If they pick up early points against WP like they did seven days ago, it is going to test the Province resolve.
The hosts lost Duane Vermeulen and Juan de Jongh since the Johannesburg trip to the Springboks, plus Siya Kolisi to injury, and those negative changes have only been partially off-set by the return to fitness of big Rynhardt Elstadt on the blindside flank. WP are going to have to take their chances better, show more discipline and better decision making if they are to win against a team that thus far has been up and down in its quest for what would be a first appearance in any kind of major semifinal since 2010.
Down in Durban it will be a case of the Sharks looking to get back on the bike as they host the Cheetahs, who once were a hoodoo team but really are no longer. The Sharks will be helped by the return of Keegan Daniel but the Cheetahs won’t be helped by the loss to Springbok duty of Johan Goosen, and with Pieter Dixon playing his first game for the home side off the bench, the smart money should be on a Sharks win.
And ditto for the Lions who host Griquas, still searching for their first win, in the first Currie Cup match of the weekend at Coca-Cola Park on Friday night.
CURRIE CUP FIXTURES (All times are CAT, SA, GMT+2)
MTN Golden Lions v GWK Griquas (Friday, Johannesburg 7:10pm)
The Sharks v Toyota Free State (Saturday, Cheetahs Durban 5:05pm)
DHL Western Province v Vodacom Blue Bulls (Saturday, Cape Town 7:10pm)