10 July 2019, by: Quintin van Jaarsveld

CURRIE CUP PREDICTIONS – ROUND 1

The 2019 Currie Cup will get underway in earnest when the defending-champion Sharks host Griquas at Kings Park on Friday evening.

The status quo remains in terms of the participating teams and truncated format. Each of the seven sides – the Sharks, Blue Bulls, Free State Cheetahs, Golden Lions, Griquas, Pumas and Western Province – will play each other just once in the league phase, with the top four advancing to the semi-finals, so there is no room for error.

Once the crown jewel of South African rugby, the Currie Cup has dissolved into a development competition in recent years – a building block for the more revered Super Rugby and PRO14 tournaments.

However, there are still some big names who’ll be in action, plus a host of Junior Springboks making the jump to senior rugby, which should make for interesting viewing.

The major change this year is the new time slot, due to the World Cup kicking off in September. It also means that the competition won’t overlap with the PRO14, so a full-strength Cheetahs side will have a fair shake at reclaiming the silverware. The Bloemfontein-based union have a bye in the opening round, though.

The Sharks-Griquas clash is the only Friday fixture, while Saturday’s matches see the Golden Lions and Western Province play host to the Pumas and Blue Bulls respectively.

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Sharks v Griquas (Friday - 19:15)

An intriguing encounter to kick-off the competition. Friday marks a fresh start for the Sharks with Sean Everitt taking over the coaching reins for the competition from Robert du Preez. Much liked and respected having come through the ranks at the union, Everitt will be as big of a trump card as the likes of Curwin Bosch and the returning JP Pietersen.

The Durbanites will be without stars such as Tendai Mtawarira, Coenie Oosthuizen, Akker van der Merwe, Ruan Botha, the Du Preez brothers, André Esterhuizen, Lukhanyo Am and Sbu Nkosi, but they still boast one of the best and balanced squads.

Much of Everitt’s champion Under-19 side, which provided 12 members of the South African Under-20 squad including Phendulani Buthelezi, who captained the team, add blue-chip exuberance to the camp and are complemented by a host of experienced Super Rugby players.

Griquas will benefit from continuity and will fancy their chances of pushing for a place in the semi-finals fresh off winning the SuperSport Rugby Challenge. Flyhalf and captain George Whitehead has tons of experience and an accurate boot and much of the Kimberley collective’s hopes will rest on him. Griquas have upset the Sharks on a number of occasions, but as the start of a new era and playing at home, the Sharks should win comfortably.

Prediction: Sharks by 14. 

Golden Lions v Pumas (Saturday - 15:00)

Much like their Super Rugby team, the Golden Lions look to be in a precarious position. The loss of several stars who made up the spine of the side could make it challenging for them to seal a semi-final spot like last year. It’ll be a good test of Ivan van Rooyen’s coaching chops.

One has to think this is a must-win for the Johannesburg side if they are to make a real run at winning the trophy for the first time since 2015.

The Pumas were the form side of this year’s SuperSport Rugby Challenge, storming through the competition unbeaten right until their loss to Griquas in the final. However, they were pummelled 42-7 by the Bulls in a warm-up fixture at Loftus last Friday, so at this stage, it’s difficult to gauge how they’ll cope with the step-up in competition.

Prediction: Lions by 7. 

Western Province v Blue Bulls (Saturday - 17:15)

The pick of the weekend’s games – the traditional North-South derby. As the competition is a sprint rather than a marathon, home games will have added importance and Western Province will have to hit the ground running in a tough opening encounter. The pressure will be on them, and it’ll be interesting to see how they respond.

John Dobson is back in charge and will be desperate to go one better after the heartache of falling short in the final, at home, last year. With “Dobbo” set for his first Super Rugby tournament at the helm next year, he’ll want to use the Currie Cup to re-establish his game plan and vision, which fans will hope will lead to a spike in tries after the Stormers’ stale Super Rugby season.

The Bulls have been laid bare by a mass exodus of Super Rugby stars and Springbok call-ups. They, too, have to start anew. The new breed looked promising in the runaway win over the Pumas in last Friday’s hit out in which the likes of Ruan Steenkamp, Manie Libbok, Rosko Specman, Dylan Sage and Divan Rossouw all impressed.

With veteran Burger Odendaal as captain and a trio of Springbok scrumhalves also at their disposal, they’ll be there or thereabout and could leave Cape Town with a win. An extremely tough one to call…home ground advantage to pull Western Province through by a hair.

Prediction: Western Province by 1. 

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