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Rugby | Currie Cup

Cheetahs change the landscape

The decision made by the Free State Cheetahs to go with their GuinnessPRO14 side in their last Currie Cup league match has added a further twist to an already intriguing final league round of the domestic competition.

With the exception of Sergeal Petersen and Francois Venter, who are both nursing niggles, the Cheetahs have chosen their strongest side for what effectively amounts to a Currie Cup quarterfinal against the Golden Lions in Johannesburg.

Before the fine-print presented by the fact that the Cheetahs have two weeks off from the PRO14 was noted, it was assumed the Lions would have an easy final game as the Cheetahs’ second string team hasn’t made much impression in the competition.

However, the Cheetahs first choice combination is an entirely different story, and the team that will go into the game against the Lions in the late game on Saturday has effectively warmed up for this point with four consecutive impressive performances against overseas opposition.

They won the first three of those games, with the victims being Zebre, Leinster and the Ospreys, and while they lost last week, they produced a creditable performance in their narrow defeat to the tournament leaders, the unbeaten Glasgow Warriors, who are coached by former Chiefs mentor Dave Rennie.

They certainly have the potential to trouble the Lions, even though the Lions have been strengthened by the return of three Springboks to the starting team – Andries Coetzee, Courtnall Skosan and Ross Cronje – and one hugely influential addition to the bench in hooker Malcolm Marx. The Lions picked up momentum last week with a good win over Western Province.

Talking of that match against WP, it threw a curve ball into the expectation that the two coastal teams would finish in the top two positions and thus guarantee home semifinals for Durban and Cape Town. Of course the Durban play-off has been assured for some time now, but the venue of the other game depends completely on how the Kings Park and Johannesburg matches turn out at the weekend.

A Lions win and a WP defeat at the hands of the competition’s form team, the Sharks, will see the Lions advance to a home semifinal. The tournament champions, the Cheetahs, will be at home next week if it is they who win in Johannesburg and WP lose.

The Cape side of course know that a win will be enough regardless what happens elsewhere, for although a WP win without a bonus point will leave them level with the Cheetahs if the Free State side win with a bonus point, the Province points differential is way superior to that of the Bloemfontein team.

No wonder then that WP say they are on a final footing this week, and if you consider that even the Pumas might have an outside theoretical chance, though it is hardly realistic, you could say that it is only the Sharks who have nothing to gain or lose from this weekend’s matches.

The Blue Bulls, who for so long seemed dead in the water when it came to playoff qualification, can sneak in at the expense of the Emirates Airlines Park loser if they beat the Pumas with a bonus point at Loftus on Friday night. Given their form against the admittedly second string Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last Friday night, that result is likely.

Given that they could either secure a home semifinal or drop out of the top four completely this weekend, the Cheetahs decision to go with their strongest side and bring in big guns Franco Smith and Rory Duncan to handle the coaching duties is entirely understandable. There is a financial windfall for the teams that host play-off matches.

The problem is what happens if they get to the final, for the Cheetahs are due to be back in PRO14 action that weekend. But that is not likely to pre-occupy the Cheetahs minds now, so the Lions can expect a tough game.

So can the Sharks, who are in that difficult position that a team faces when the players know that if they remain fit they will be playing in a plum semifinal the next week but that if they get injured they would be missing out.

The Durban match between the Sharks and WP is, in fact, a reversal of the Super Rugby match between the Sharks and the Stormers earlier in the year, when the Sharks hosted the Cape team needing to win to maintain a strong challenge for a place in the playoffs while the Stormers had effectively already won their conference. It worked against the Stormers then and WP coach John Dobson will hope that it will work against the Sharks this time.

WP have been an enigmatic team this season. They’ve played really well in patches of games and in portions of the season – think about their 39-3 win over the Lions at Newlands as an example – but then bombed quite spectacularly on other occasions.

If you look at the team on paper, they should have achieved more than they have. Their loss to the Pumas in Nelspruit was due to an abysmal performance and that expression should apply to their last quarter against the Lions last week too.

Perhaps though, the knowledge that there is no tomorrow if they lose – there is in fact still a theoretical chance WP can miss out on the play-offs completely if they lose in Durban and the Cheetahs pick up two losing bonus points – will inspire them to lift their game. They will need to, as the Sharks have been much the better team over the course of the season.

While the Sharks welcome back Dan du Preez at No 8 and Lukhanyo Am at outside centre, the WP challenge has been strengthened by the return of Springboks Wilco Louw and Dillyn Leyds. The Sharks do though also have the formidable presence of Jean-Luc du Preez to call on from the bench as well as Louis Schreuder and Chiliboy Ralepelle.

There are many variables to take into consideration and the Cheetahs’ decision to go full strength has further skewed the view of those who’d like to make predictions about how it will all turn out.

Just about anything is possible, including the prospect of WP having to go back to Durban next week for a quarterfinal, which is what would happen if they lose on Saturday and finish fourth. There would then be a rematch between the Lions and the Cheetahs in the other semifinal.

A more likely scenario is that the one semifinal will be in either Johannesburg or Cape Town and will feature WP against the Lions and the other will see the Sharks host the Bulls.

Weekend fixtures

Vodacom Blue Bulls v Steval Pumas (Pretoria, Friday 19.00)

Cell C Sharks v DHL Western Province (Durban, Saturday 15.00)

Xerox Golden Lions v Toyota Free State Cheetahs (Johannesburg, Saturday 17.15)


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