WP looking for rare clean sweep
As well as the knowledge that a win will cement their place in the Absa Currie Cup semifinal zone, Western Province will have the extra drive when they visit Pretoria on Friday night of seeking a clean sweep that a few years ago would have been impossible to even think about.
In their guise as WP and the Stormers spread across the two major competitions, the Cape team has won all three of the matches they have played against teams dressed in light blue this year. They won at Newlands and at Loftus in two closely contested games as the Stormers in Super Rugby, while WP thrashed the Blue Bulls 42-6 in Cape Town earlier in this competition.
WP coach Allister Coetzee has the confidence of visiting Loftus having presided over two consecutive victories there in Super Rugby, and the second round Currie Cup game there last season, when Province were seriously denuded by injury, was a lot closer than many predicted, with WP paying for a poor start but coming back strongly in the second half.
Adding some importance to the all-important battle for psychological supremacy that is a constant part of top rugby is also the fact that it will be at Loftus that the Stormers open their next Super Rugby campaign in February next year. So Coetzee will know that important points can be scored now if it ensures that his team starts that game not having lost to the Bulls in more than a year.
Although the Super Rugby teams will look very different to how the two sides line up on Friday, another consecutive WP win will start giving them a similar psychological hold over the Bulls that the Sharks currently appear to have over their Cape rivals.
Yet while a type of hegemony beckons for WP in the north/south rivalry, they will be visiting Loftus with some trepidation, for Coetzee would not have been exaggerating when he said earlier in the week that the Bulls are a desperate team preparing for their match of the season.
Not only do the hosts have the carrot of playing to avenge the humiliation afflicted on them at Newlands, they also have to win to avoid the relegation zone and keep themselves in the mix for a top four spot. One of the beauties of this year’s competition has been that the abbreviated nature of it and four teams advancing from six has meant that with just two weeks to go of the league phase, all teams are still in with a chance of lifting the trophy.
Finishing third or fourth will mean those teams have to travel for their semifinal, but at least they have a chance, so even for the two central union teams, the Cheetahs and Griquas, who host the Sharks and Lions respectively, there is still plenty to play for. Both of them could conceivably end behind the Bulls on the final log and thus face the unwanted promotion-relegation playoffs, but there is an outside chance they could also still win the competition.
The two games in central South Africa on Saturday could well determine the fates of the two top teams, the Lions and the Sharks. If the Lions beat Griquas and the Sharks lose to the Cheetahs, the Lions will have made sure of the top spot that ensures they host the final should they get that far.
For a union reeling after the decision to relegate them from Super Rugby, the lucre that comes with hosting a domestic final is not to be scoffed at.
At the same time, a Sharks win and Lions loss will see the Durbanites leapfrog their arch-rivals and keep the top spot in the balance into the final round of the competition. However with the Sharks set to host Griquas in the final match, and the Lions facing a tougher home game against the Bulls, the champions will not want to leave it to the last week if they can avoid it.
The return of some Springboks to the Bulls’ mix might give them a slight edge in the battle of Loftus (it would have been different had Rynhardt Elstadt been fit to play for WP), but both the other two games are hard to call. It’s been a while since the Cheetahs could claim to be the Sharks’ hoodoo side, but nonetheless they pushed the under-strength Sharks in Durban in the first round game and without their Springbok forwards, the Sharks might struggle in Bloemfontein.
The Sharks, like most teams in the competition, have been a bit up and down this season, and the Lions look the form team at present. But they did lose to Griquas in Johannesburg in the first round, and everyone knows how much tougher Griquas are on their home ground.
WEEKEND FIXTURES(All times are CAT, SA, GMT+2)
Vodacom Blue Bulls v DHL Western Province, Pretoria 7:10pm
GWK Griquas v MTN Golden Lions, Kimberley 2pm
Toyota Free State Cheetahs v Sharks, Bloemfontein 7:15pm