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Rugby | Currie Cup

Returns from injury give WP options

Several players have returned from injury to offer Western Province coach John Dobson some interesting selection options ahead of Saturday’s Currie Cup semifinal against the Golden Lions at Newlands.

Centre Dan du Plessis has been back in training for a week and the player who is highly rated by Dobson is ready to play against the Lions should the coach decide he is needed. But the man leading the charge of the returning injured light brigade is fullback SP Marais, who has been out since the early weeks of the Currie Cup season.

Marais impressed for the Stormers in the last line of defence during Super Rugby and his offload game, strong running and lengthy field and place-kicking boot does bring an extra dimension for WP when he is present. His decision making might be a tad better in the last line of defence than the other players who have played there recently, and you need to remember that the incumbent, Damian Willemse, has played most of his rugby at flyhalf.

That though is why the selection dilemma that Dobson faces is such a tricky one. Willemse’s apprenticeship at Currie Cup level, and his appearance in big pressure games such as a domestic semi-final, is a big part of his learning and progress towards what could be an important role for him in next year’s Super Rugby competition, when Robert du Preez’s anticipated return to Durban should see him take up the pivot position.

Marais’ long lay-off could help Dobson make his decision in the sense that maybe he should be eased off via the bench, though the coach also has plenty of options there.

One of the biggest decisions that Dobson has to make is in the midfield. He played Blitzbok star Ruhan Nel at No12 in last week’s win against the Sharks in Durban but EW Viljoen might be set for a return this week to partner Huw Jones, with Du Plessis’ lack of recent game time counting against him.

Also back in the selection mix this week are former Lions and Springbok scrumhalf Jano Vermaak as well as Sikhumbuzo Notshe, who cried off from the Durban game at a late stage because of illness.

“With SP back it is going to be a tricky selection, but he hasn’t played for a while, so it might be hard to throw him into a semifinal,” said Dobson.

“The midfield conundrum is also a difficult one. Ruan did what we wanted him to last week by playing straight, but EW Viljoen has been good all season. I am not sure about Huw (Jones) as a 13 but he will be in the team.”

Dobson felt the game against the Sharks was a good build-up to a semifinal for although the Sharks had nothing to play for, they did hit WP hard in the first half hour and forced the Cape side to have to dig deep before they took control after half-time.

“I was impressed with the Sharks intensity at the start if you consider that for them it was a dead rubber. If they'd scored when they were pressing at 10-3 up and had taken a 17-3 lead I don't think we would have come back at them. As it was I thought that 13-3 at half-time was a bit of a long shot for us. We put in a few tries in the second half because we were more desperate, but I was pleased with the way we withstood the early onslaught from the competition’s best team,” he said.

“We did give them yards on defence early in the game, and we knew we had to get more direct than they were. So after we adjusted we started to get a couple of yards ourselves. There was no real fluidity from either side on attack but it was never going to be that kind of game. It was always going to be a physical fight and I am glad that in the end we prevailed.

“It is important for a team like us to make a home semifinal. If you look at the teams talent-wise, we should be one of the top teams in the Currie Cup and so making a home semi was a requirement. We know it is going to be tough from here but in the Currie Cup you really do start from scratch once the play-offs start. I remember us winning the Currie Cup by beating the Sharks in the final in 2012 after we’d finished fourth, and then the following year the Sharks shocked us in a Newlands final after we’d finished top of the log.

“Saturday’s game is going to be a really big one. The Lions have been improving all the time and have five Springboks back. Five starting Springboks coming into any team will make a difference and raise the level of intensity.”


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