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Rugby | Currie Cup

Race for home semi wide open



The Golden Lions’ excellent come-from-behind win over Western Province in Johannesburg on Sunday has added massive interest to the final week of the league phase of the Currie Cup.

A win for WP would have secured them a home semifinal, and even had they escaped with a losing bonus point from the Sunday shoot-out they would be in the pound seats in the tussle to end second to the Sharks on the final log. That is because a four-point advantage would have left them just needing to pick up a bonus point in Durban in their final league match this coming weekend as they have a superior points difference to the other teams vying for second place.

However, when the Lions crossed for their fourth try and secured their own bonus point while at the same time denying WP theirs, the gap between the teams was cut to three points. That means that WP have to win in Durban in order to ensure they play their play-off game at Newlands as the Lions should be expected to beat the third-string Cheetahs in their last match in Johannesburg.

This past weekend was marked by results that have signalled a resurgence and ignited a late charge for the two favoured Gauteng sides that were struggling in the early weeks of the competition. The Blue Bulls’ big win in Bloemfontein on Friday night has given them a realistic chance of making the top four, while the Lions’ win on Sunday has made second spot a strong possibility.

The Bulls’ chances of being in the semis are no longer just wishful thinking on the part of their coach, John Mitchell. They are four log points adrift of the Cheetahs and can sneak into the play-offs if the Cheetahs lose to the Lions in Johannesburg and they themselves are too good for the Pumas in Pretoria.

One thing the Bulls’ excellent win over the Cheetahs achieved was a significant improvement in their points differential. So if they ended with the same number of points as the Cheetahs, it would be they who’d advance to the play-offs and not the 2016 champions.

A lot might hinge on the mood of the Sharks as they face their last league engagement against their arch rivals from the Cape. They have already secured top spot and it would be understandable if coach Robert du Preez protected some players in preparation for the semifinal, which now looks likely to be against the Bulls, the following week.

Province by contrast will be going to Durban on a real win-at-all-costs mission as a home semifinal is important to their union’s cash-strapped bosses. That might just give them a winning edge, though the presence of so many former WP players in the Sharks outfit does tend to lift the performance levels of the Durban team when they play their Cape rivals.

WP should be kicking themselves for being in a position where they have to win in Durban. They were controlling the game against the Lions until well into the second half, but then produced soft moments that allowed the Lions back into the game. WP were leading 20-10 into the third quarter and could have been further ahead had they been more ruthless in exploiting their territorial ascendancy.

However, the Lions started winning possession in the second half, and the WP defence was always vulnerable. Seeing we gave WP fullback Damian Willemse such a big rap last week for winning the game against the Bulls with a pressure penalty, it is probably fair to mention that this was a game where the 19-year-old showed that he remains inconsistent.

He made some glaring mistakes, such as missing the tackle that led to the Lions’ break-back try, and he also took his eyes off the ball when WP desperately needed relief while on the defence in the dying stages of the game. It was from the resultant Lions put-in that the hosts built up for their bonus-point try.

WP are a bit of an enigma, as, if you look at their team on paper they should be comfortably near the top of the log, possibly only second to the Sharks. However they keep conspiring to lose games they should win, with the Lions lining up with a much less experienced team than they did. Like they did against the Pumas in Nelspruit a couple of weeks ago, they looked comfortable and then inexplicably lost it as they squandered a handy lead.

The Lions will have momentum after this win and WP could end up regretting it as there is a good chance now that they will clash again in the semifinal, with the venue being determined by next weekend’s results. The Bulls though are suddenly looking like the really dangerous dark horses. Don’t write them off.

While the Bulls arguably provided the performance of the weekend and the Lions the upset, it was Griquas and the Pumas who provided the match of the weekend, with Griquas reasserting their reputation as comeback kings by coming back late in the match to ruin what was shaping to be a strong Pumas challenge for a play-off spot. The Nelspruit team still has an outside chance of qualifying for a semifinal but they’ve been left with just a little too much to do for that chance to really be considered realistic.

WEEKEND RESULTS

Golden Lions 29 Western Province 20

Pumas 35 Griquas 38

Free State Cheeetahs 36 Blue Bulls 64



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