It’s a catfight of epic proportions as the Cheetahs and Pumas collide in the Currie Cup final in Bloemfontein on Saturday (16:00 kick-off), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
With the competition having gone from being the be-all and end-all of South African rugby to playing third string to United Rugby Championship and European competitions, it’s apropos that these two teams are in the decider and even more so after they felled vaunted franchises in last weekend’s semi-finals to get there.
They’ve had similar roads to the final, emerging as the pacesetters in the first half of the tournament before having to recover from late regular season adversity to reach the playoffs, the Cheetahs as top seeds and the Pumas in third position.
The Free Staters are firm favourites after their commanding 39-10 win over the Bulls last weekend but if one team’s proved they cannot be counted out, it’s the Pumas.
The men from Nelspruit famously beat Griquas 26-19 in Kimberley last year to clinch their first-ever Currie Cup crown and stunned the Sharks 26-20 in Durban last weekend to reach their second successive final.
In addition, the Free State Stadium hasn’t exactly been a fortress this season, with the Cheetahs winning four, losing three and drawing one in their backyard.
Jimmy Stonehouse’s men have over the last fortnight rediscovered the bite that made them champions and thrive as underdogs. They’re the true definition of a team, a no-ego motley crew of so-called average Joes who, collectively, form a force to be reckoned with.
Shane Kirkwood and company are a band of brothers who lay their bodies on the line for one another. Blue-collar battlers, they’re as willing and able to dazzle as they are to tough it out in the trenches, as their heroic defensive effort at Kings Park reaffirmed.
Finals often come down to who wants it more and while there’s no denying the Cheetahs’ commitment to capture their first Currie Cup title since 2019, the Pumas are driven by a special type of desire that’s more than motivation.
Theirs is a desperation, a hunger for more, to hammer home the message that they not only deserve but have earned the opportunity to compete in an international competition.
As part of the revamped European competition structures announced last week, it was revealed that two additional clubs will be invited to compete in the expanded 18-team Challenge Cup and it would be hard to deny the Pumas a spot if they’re able to secure a second South African title in as many years.
The sides split the league matches one apiece and the record books show the last time the Pumas visited the City of Roses, they romped to a 61-21 win. However, that came over an unrecognisable Cheetahs team who were scraped together as the entire first team were away on Challenge Cup duty.
The return clash in Nelspruit was a truer reflection of how they match up and saw the Cheetahs triumph 29-14. The Pumas had no answer for the visitors’ potent driving maul, which earned them two of their four tries, and you can bet the Cheetahs will go to this, what’s been a source of points all season, early and often.
The Pumas, in turn, will target the scrums after the Cheetahs lost two props to injuries last weekend in Schalk Ferreira and Hencus van Wyk. Overall, it’s the attack of the Cheetahs against the defence of the Pumas with the former having scored the most tries (67) and the latter having conceded the fewest (40) this season.
Key to the Cheetahs’ success has been their remarkable ruck speed. They’ve been in a class of their own in this department all season and the Pumas will have to find a way to slow them down while staying disciplined as Pienaar, like he did to the Sharks, will punish them for their indiscretions.
The lineouts should be evenly contested, although, PJ Jacobs will have to adjust his radar after overshooting on three occasions last weekend.
Ultimately, with their edge at the breakdown, their near-unstoppable driving maul and home-ground advantage, the Cheetahs should see off the spirited defending champions and clinch their seventh title.