For some it’s about the money
The last round of the league phase of the Absa Currie Cup will again present itself as different competitions within a competition – some are fighting for survival and just to be playing rugby next week, while for others, it is all about the money.
DHL Western Province and the Sharks have both already secured home semifinals for next week.
But the big moneyspinner in South African domestic rugby has always been the Currie Cup final, with as much as R10-million normally finding its way into the coffers of the union that hosts the season’s showpiece event.
Prize money has been introduced this year, but it is still the host union that stands to walk away with the bulk of the lucre on offer, and that is the extra incentive for Saturday’s game at Growthpoint Kings Park.
It may seem an irony considering what was to happen to them later on, but the previous Sharks coaching staff made the point after the defeat in last year’s final in Durban that the administration was still happy with them as they had delivered by topping the log and thus ensuring the much needed cash.
Last year they had to do it the hard way by coming from third on the log, which meant an away semifinal and hardly any money banked, but as they lagged most of the way in an inconsistent league season, money wasn’t much of an issue for Province last year.
But it was a bone of contention between the WP administration and the team management in 2010, when like this year it was nip and tuck between the Sharks and Province at the top of the log before the Sharks eventually edged ahead and hosted a final that they won.
WP/Stormers people often talked about the potential R10-million missed out on the following season when player recruitment became a media issue and the debate was eventually one of the contributing factors to Rassie Erasmus’s eventual resignation from what was effectively the director of rugby position.
For the record, the Sharks have hosted several finals over the past decade, including 2008, 2010 and 2012, but WP haven’t played a final at Newlands since the October day in 2001 that was the start of the 11-year drought in trophy wins that was finally broken last year.
So that means it is 12 years ago, which is a sod of a long time in anyone’s language, but particularly when you are a union that has the proud record of having won more Currie Cups than anyone else.
No wonder WP captain Deon Fourie started off the season saying that his team felt they owed the Cape fans a home final.
The subtext though was that they also owed the WP union a home final so that they have more money to play with when it comes to player bartering, among other things, next season.
Of course none of this is a consideration for the other teams, with three of the four vying for the remaining two semifinal places.
The MTN Golden Lions are probably the team most assured of advancing if you consider they just need to win to be sure, and they host GWK Griquas, who in the weeks since the departure of their coaching staff was announced have become a guaranteed four-try bonus point for opposing teams.
The side that is most up against it is the Vodacom Blue Bulls.
The dominant team in the competition for the first decade of this century, the Bulls have been languishing near the bottom of the log for most of the season, and they have a lot of work to do this weekend against the Toyota Free State Cheetahs if they want to advance at the expense of the Bloemfontein based team.
WEEKEND FIXTURES AND PREDICTIONS (all times CAT, SA, GMT+2)
MTN GOLDEN LIONS v GWK GRIQUAS (Ellis Park, Saturday 3pm)
The Lions have made four personnel changes for this game, the most notable being the return of Springbok Franco van der Merwe (he officially became a Bok last Saturday). The other changes to the forward pack see prop Jacques van Rooyen and hooker Willie Wepener promoted to the starting team, while the one backline change sees Deon Helberg come back into the side for Lionel Cronje.
GWK Griquas meanwhile have had to start thinking about the promotion-relegation play-offs, thanks to Saru's refusal to see the light by expanding the Currie Cup top division to eight teams next year. This concern accounts for the wholesale changes made by Pote Human in what is effectively his last Currie Cup game in charge.
The Lions are playing off the back of consecutive defeats to the Sharks and WP but as they have been all season, they showed in the strong patches during those games just how good they could be. The challenge for them is to sustain it for 80 minutes, and if they manage it, we could yet see a shock result in the play-offs.
Prediction: Lions to win easily.
TOYOTA FREE STATE CHEETAHS v VODACOM BLUE BULLS (Free State Stadium, Saturday 5.05pm)
The Bulls’ returning Springboks JJ Engelbrecht and Jan Serfontein must be feeling hints of déjà vu as they build up to this final Currie Cup league game – they face exactly the same task at the Free State Stadium as they did in the Bok jersey last week if they were going to win the Castle Lager Rugby Championship. In other words, they need to win by more than eight points, and they need to score four tries while denying the Cheetahs a bonus point. That is a tall order if you consider that they are the only returning Springboks to the Bulls team, and they are playing this game away from home.
Ironically the Bulls look much stronger at the back for this game than they do at forward, and with Adriaan Strauss and Coenie Oosthuizen returning to the front row to partner Trevor Nyakane, the Cheetahs’ pack looks formidable again. So the Bulls’ quest this week is likely to end in the same way as the Boks’ quest did last week – in defeat.
Prediction: Cheetahs to win.
THE SHARKS v DHL WESTERN PROVINCE (Growthpoint Kings Park, Saturday 7.10pm)
Some are viewing this game as a warm-up to a repeat of last year’s Durban final, but the reality is that there is a heck of a lot to play for with the home-ground advantage in that deciding game up for grabs. Both teams have reintroduced Springboks for this clash, arguably the most influential players back in the sides being Eben Etzebeth for WP and Bismarck du Plessis for the Sharks.
Considering how much their scrum battled against Province in the first round, the return of the all-Bok front row is a significant lift for the Sharks. But there again, Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen add considerable physical staunchness to a WP pack that was pretty good in the under-strength phase of the season anyway, while Siya Kolisi was good in his role as a replacement against the All Blacks last week.
Springbok captain Jean de Villiers is rightly being rested for this game, but only in a manner of speaking, for he has been included on the Province bench, which also just happens to include his mate and fellow multiple-capped international player Schalk Burger. With the in-form Michael Rhodes also forming part of the visiting bench, it may well be the strength of their bench that will give WP the confidence and drive to secure the win that will ensure they achieve a rare unbeaten run through the league phase of the season.
Prediction: WP to win.