Sport

CURRIE CUP

Clash of the cats as Pumas and Cheetahs prepare for final showdown

Clash of the cats as Pumas and Cheetahs prepare for final showdown
The Cheetahs' Cohen Jasper in action during the Currie Cup semifinal against the Bulls at Free State Stadium on 17 June 2023. (Photo: Charle Lombard / Gallo Images)

The Pumas have won all of their playoff matches away from home in the past two seasons, a feat Hawies Fourie and his men are hoping to nip in the bud on Saturday in Bloemfontein.

Two of the big cats in South African rugby face off in the Currie Cup final on Saturday. The Pumas are looking to make it two titles in as many years while the Cheetahs look for retribution for their semifinal defeat to the self-same opposition in 2022.

Both the Cheetahs and the Pumas have made this year’s Currie Cup final against the odds, having conquered Sharks, Bulls, Stormers and Lions sides laden with United Rugby Championship players.

The Cheetahs have been dominant throughout this season, only losing four of their 14 matches to end top of the Currie Cup log following the round robin phase.

Deon Slabbert of the Pumas during the Currie Cup semifinal against the Sharks at Kings Park in Durban on 17 June 2023. (Photo: Steve Haag Sports / Gallo Images)

One of those defeats was at the hands of the Pumas though – a heavy 61-21 thumping in Bloemfontein.

The Cheetahs topped last season’s log too, suffering only two defeats before losing 38-36 to the Pumas in the semifinal at the Free State Stadium. Vengeance at their home field in the final is a primary goal for the Cheetahs on Saturday.

It’s been a long process to become a better team than we were a year ago. It wasn’t fixed in a week.

“It was tough on all of us, especially me, that we lost,” said Cheetahs coach Hawies Fourie about last season’s semifinal defeat.

“It wasn’t easy to get over, but sometimes you have to let go and make peace with it, and start working towards the next campaign.

“We learnt lessons and know what didn’t work for us. We started with the new process last July, so it is 11 months on.

“One of the big things was our conditioning. I think we are really well-conditioned. The guys are stronger and fitter than last year so that will help us a lot.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Underdogs Pumas and Cheetahs pounce on Sharks and Bulls to set up Currie Cup final clash

There was no similar slip-up this season as the Bloemfontein-based side thrashed the Bulls 39-10 in their Currie Cup semifinal clash on Saturday.

“We faded towards the end of the second half in this year’s semifinal [against the Bulls], but I think we have played 15 games and only lost the second half once.

“We have a lot of confidence in what we do and how we do it. It’s been a long process to become a better team than we were a year ago. It wasn’t fixed in a week.”

Tapiwa Mafura of the Cheetahs in action against the Bulls in their semifinal clash at Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein on 17 June 2023. (Photo: Charle Lombard / Gallo Images)

Catfight

The Cheetahs tasted victory over the Pumas for the first time in more than a year in round 13 of the Currie Cup, beating them 29-14 in Mbombela. Fourie is confident of repeating the rare feat again this Saturday, now that they are more familiar with their opponents’ style of play.

“They have a very good offload game, they counterattack really well, and have a good kicking game with [flyhalf] Tinus (de Beer) and [fullback] Devon (Williams) who are left- and right-footed kickers. It makes it difficult,” the coach said.

We did struggle a bit in the scrums against the Sharks [in the semifinal], that’s for sure, but we’ll be fine against the Cheetahs. We know how to fix it.

“They also have a strong pack of forwards, so they can bring different things to a match, and I expect them to be as physical as we know they can be.

“There is a lot to play for us, there will be a lot of pressure on both teams. They are the defending champions, and the pressure will be to retain the Cup.

“We will definitely give 100% to try and win it. We let ourselves down last year.”

Pumas captain Shane Kirkwood during their semifinal against the Sharks on 17 June 2023. (Photo: Steve Haag Sports / Gallo Images)

Surprise?

The Pumas’ territory-based game plan is well documented but head coach Jimmy Stonehouse has warned that there may be a surprise or two when the whistle blows on Saturday.

“We are working on a few things,” Stonehouse said. “You have to bring a little something new to a final. Every guy has something up their sleeve…

“We did struggle a bit in the scrums against the Sharks [in the semifinal], that’s for sure, but we’ll be fine against the Cheetahs. We know how to fix it, so it’s not really a concern for us.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Dependable Tinus De Beer looks to celebrate Pumas exodus with second Currie Cup title

“One of the key focus areas in the final will be the set-pieces, and we have to be 100% ready for it. Our mauls, too, because we know how much of a threat they are from the mauls – it’s probably their biggest weapon. So that’s what we have to get right.

“At the breakdowns, they keep Jeandré (Rudolph) and Daniel (Maartens) on the bench to flood the breakdowns. So, if the referee can keep an eye on that, that could possibly also help us.”

Cheetahs head coach Hawies Fourie admitted that last year’s 38-36 Currie Cup semifinal defeat to the Pumas stung. The Cheetahs have a chance to atone when they host the 2023 Currie Cup final against the same opponents on 24 June. (Photo: Steve Haag Sports / Gallo Images)

Pumas head coach Jimmy Stonehouse hinted that his side might spring a few surprises against the Cheetahs in this weekend’s Currie Cup final in Bloemfontein. (Photo: Steve Haag Sports / Gallo Images)

The Pumas have a strong record on the road. They won both of their playoff matches away from home last season to claim their first Currie Cup title.

After falling to the Cheetahs at home in round 13, they beat the Griquas in Kimberley in what was essentially a quarterfinal clash before slipping past the Sharks 26-20 in the Currie Cup semifinal in Durban last week.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Pumas and Griquas fight for relevance beyond the Currie Cup

“That last game [against the Cheetahs] in [Mbombela] could’ve gone our way, but this week’s a final in Bloemfontein and anything can happen,” Stonehouse added.

“If things work out like we’ve planned and our discipline is 100%, and Tinus de Beer’s kicking boot is on song, then we can repeat what happened in 2022.”

A mouthwatering clash between two of South Africa’s more understated yet exciting teams is expected when referee Cwengile Jadezweni blows the first whistle at 4pm on Saturday. DM

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