Currie Cup ‘knockouts’ as aperitif
It says something about how much the face of the game in this country has changed that three Currie Cup fixtures that could determine the final pecking order will be played in the shadows cast by an important test match this weekend.
Back in the 1980s and the early part of the 1990s the thought that three such crucial domestic matches would be relegated to the inside sport pages of newspapers and the lower rungs of the order list in cyberspace would have been unheard of. Not that there was cyberspace back then, of course, and neither was their test rugby, so this shouldn't be seen as a complaint.
But for those who do have the time or the inclination to tear their focus away from what is going to happen at Loftus, there is a heck of a lot of intrigue and entertainment value to be had from what happens earlier in the weekend, with the Currie Cup fixtures providing an appetising starter to the main meal.
With three matches to go there is reason for all six teams to be on a knockout footing -- the Lions, Sharks and Western Province cannot afford to lose if they hope to top the log, the Bulls and Griquas can’t lose if they want to remain in contention for a place in the top four and avoid the relegation zone, and the Cheetahs are in the Last Chance Saloon that the Bulls were drinking in last week.
The top three are probably clear of the relegation zone, but all six teams are still in with a chance of making the semifinals, which means they all still retain an interest in the destination of the trophy. Yes, even the Cheetahs, who somewhat bizarrely find themselves footing the log and playing for survival in their central union derby in Bloemfontein.
As they don’t lose as many Springboks as some of the other top teams do, the Cheetahs were one of the favoured teams at the start of the Currie Cup season. But after losing several games in succession that they could easily have won, they are in danger of seeing all the other sides disappearing over the hill in front of them if they lose.
LIONS WITHOUT KEY PLAYERS
Well okay, maybe not if the Bulls lose in Durban on Friday night, which could well happen. If the Bulls and the Cheetahs lost this weekend, what it would do is confirm their place in the relegation zone, with Griquas joining the Lions, WP and Sharks in feeling quite secure about a top four place.
The Sharks of course have a score to settle with the Bulls, just as they had when they played the corresponding match of the Super Rugby season.
When they played in Durban in early July, the Sharks needed to avenge their opening defeat at Loftus back in February, and Keegan Daniel’s team will consider the loss to the Bulls at Loftus in the first round of this competition as a defeat that shouldn’t have happened.
They should be a lot tighter this time, for they were way too loose in their approach last time these teams met, and the Bulls scored as many soft tries against them as the Hurricanes did in Super Rugby over the Easter weekend.
Sharks fans should like the look of the backline that lines up for their team this week -- Meyer Bosman at flyhalf, Tim Whitehead and Paul Jordaan in the midfield, and Riaan Viljoen at the back and Louis Ludik on the wing. So they have both running capability and the ability to stump the kicking game that the Bulls employed to beat them in Pretoria.
WP must feel they have scored big time in tackling the Lions on a weekend when they have just lost some key players to the Springboks. Certainly Elton Jantjies, who along with Jaco Taute and Pat Cilliers may well be in Stormers clothing next year, was a pivotal player when the Lions won the opening round game.
But then WP coach Allister Coetzee was right when he spoke up the match-winning potential of Butch James. And Robbie Fleck has also with some justification done the same with Lionel Mapoe. The Lions are deserved log leaders at present so they shouldn’t be underestimated, even at Newlands, but the hosts should be favoured to reverse the first round result.
WEEKEND CURRIE CUP FIXTURES (All times are CAT, SA, GMT+2)
Sharks v Vodacom Blue Bulls Durban 7:10pm
DHL Western Province v MTN Golden Lions Cape Town 2pm
Toyota Free State Cheetahs v GWK Griquas Bloemfontein 2.00pm