Western Province head into the Absa Currie Cup semi-finals on Saturday favoured to claim a second successive title. Having stormed to the top of the round-robin log unbeaten, they have the easier of the two knockout matches as they face the Lions, and victory will see them hosting the final. By KEN BORLAND.
Their opponents will be the winners of the second semi-final (5pm) between the Sharks and the Free State Cheetahs in Durban, and this should be a much tighter contest.
As well as the Lions have played this season to reach the semi-finals, they remain a class below Western Province and it would be a massive upset were they to triumph at Newlands on Saturday.
The Lions only have one current Springbok – stalwart lock Franco van der Merwe – and he unsurprisingly ensures that their strength is in the lineout and the almost inevitable rolling maul that follows.
But even in the second row, Western Province have the players to at least match the Lions in the ever-improving Eben Etzebeth and the unsung De Kock Steenkamp.
The Lions should welcome back 2012 Springbok Elton Jantjies at flyhalf, but playing at Newlands could be an issue for the youngster who was hounded by haters when he played for the Stormers in SuperRugby.
The Lions, with vastly experienced front-rankers in Willie Wepener and Bees Roux in their squad, are strong in the set-pieces, but Western Province showed last weekend against the Springbok-laden Sharks that they have a tight five that can match anyone in the competition.
The defending champions just have too much player depth for all the other teams, save for the Sharks, and that is borne out by the fact that standout loose forwards Nizaam Carr and Rynhardt Elstadt can’t even make the match-day 22 for Saturday’s semi-final.
The Western Province backline is similarly blessed with talent, especially since Jean de Villiers, surely the player of the year, will be starting in the number 13 jersey. The exciting talents of Juan de Jongh, whose brilliant individual try was the match-winning moment of last year’s final against the Sharks, will be on the bench as coach Allister Coetzee has decided to continue with the powerful physical presence and ability to get over the gain-line that Damian de Allende provides.
The boot of flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis was another of the key factors in last year’s final and the prodigal son of Cape rugby has returned from the Southern Kings to provide the necessary generalship and tactical nous for a Western Province side that seems to be peaking at the right time.
The dazzling attacking talents of Gio Aplon will also provide a threat from fullback and the pocket dynamo will be hoping there is the carrot of a place on the Springboks’ end-of-year tour to Europe, should he excel in these closing stages of the Currie Cup.
The other semi-final between the Sharks and Cheetahs was shaping to be an intriguing battle between the Springbok A and B front rows – Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis and Jannie du Plessis for the KwaZulu-Natalians and Coenie Oosthuizen, Adriaan Strauss and Trevor Nyakane for the Free Staters.
But Jannie du Plessis’ absence with a hand injury means there will be more pressure on the Harare-born Mtawarira to lead the Sharks scrum to a much better performance than last weekend against Western Province.
The major change to the Sharks team is in the number 12 jersey where Francois Steyn will return to action for the first time in five months after a leg injury. What hairstyle he will bring to the field will be less the focus of attention than his conditioning and form and whether he could return to the Springboks for the end-of-year tour.
Pat Lambie also gets a rare chance to play 80 minutes of rugby as he returns to the number 10 jersey, and the Cheetahs would do well to remember the man who turned just 23 yesterday [Thursday] already has a history of winning Currie Cup finals.
A place in the final would really be a remarkable achievement by the team and coaches Brad MacLeod-Henderson and Sean Everitt. Considering the shock departure of John Plumtree, which would only have caused insecurity amongst the players, and the disruptive effect of Jake White figuratively lurking in the corridors, one could not have asked for more from the Sharks this season.
The Cheetahs will ask plenty of questions of the Sharks defence, given the strong ball-carriers they have, their abrasive loose trio of Philip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagne and Boom Prinsloo, a probing set of half-backs in Sarel Pretorius and Elgar Watts, and the finishing ability of Raymond Rhule and Robert Ebersohn.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the rugby food chain, Griquas will play the first leg of their promotion/relegation series against the Pumas, the First Division champions, in Kimberley on Friday.
Why the game is taking place at all is not clear because the participants in next year’s Currie Cup Premier Division will be decided, as ever, in the boardroom and not on the playing field.
Although the proposal from the Eastern Province Rugby Union to expand the Premier Division from six to eight teams was rejected by the South African Rugby Union General Council at the end of last month, the talk is that the proposal will be resubmitted before the end of the year.
The Pumas, who have thoroughly dominated the First Division, and the Kings, serving the massive and politically important Eastern Cape region, have the support of many when it comes to playing in the Premier Division.
But the thought of losing Griquas is unpalatable to many as well, so the obvious solution is to return the Currie Cup to the eight-team format that was in place as recently as two years ago.
That changed pretty much on the whim of the 14 union presidents, but now the winds of change are seemingly blowing in the other direction. DM
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