The first page in the next chapter of the oldest provincial rugby competition in the world will be written when the Currie Cup kicks off this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The expanded, eight-team competition gets underway with the Central derby between Griquas and the Cheetahs in Kimberley on Friday.
Saturday sees the Sharks welcome newcomers the Griffons to the top-flight in Durban and the Lions play host to Western Province in Johannesburg before the Pumas start the defence of their title against the Bulls in Pretoria on Sunday.
Griquas v Cheetahs
Friday, 10 March – 17:00
Griquas have retained most of the squad who reached the final last year and have offset the loss of Eduan Keyter with the signing of Springbok speedster Rosko Specman. They’ll be determined to go one better in 2023 after their heart-breaking defeat to the Pumas in last year’s decider.
The Cheetahs are the stronger side on paper, one that finished the regular season in pole position before being stunned by the Pumas in the semi-finals last year, and they should be there or thereabout again. A second advantage of theirs over their neighbours is their worldly experience, having mixed it up in and qualified for the upcoming European Challenge Cup playoffs.
Griquas are notoriously tough to beat in Kimberley, but the Cheetahs have the quality to claim their first victory there since 2021 in a hard-fought contest.
Sharks v Griffons
Saturday, 11 March – 13:30
Last year’s First Division champions the Griffons will be eyeing a few upsets but look set to find life tough in the big leagues. They were thumped 36-7 by Griquas in a warm-up fixture last week and it doesn’t come any easier against the Sharks at Kings Park to kick off their campaign.
Thunderstorms are forecast, so while I’m expecting the Durbanites to start the Joey Mongalo era with a comfortable win, it probably won’t be a complete blowout.
Lions v Western Province
Saturday, 11 March – 15:30
The two teams who finished at the bottom of the log last season go head-to-head at Ellis Park. 2022 wooden spoonists the Lions have been galvanised by off-field issues and will be high on confidence after recording back-to-back wins in the United Rugby Championship in recent weeks.
They’re the most likely of the four franchises to dip into their URC talent pool and if they do so more heavily than Western Province, they should open their account with a home win.
Bulls v Pumas
Sunday, 12 March – 13:00
The Pumas don’t exactly have an ideal first assignment to start their title defence. They’ve lost four straight against the Bulls and have never triumphed at Loftus Versfeld.
Also not helping is the fact that they’ve lost a number of stars who propelled them to their maiden Currie Cup title last year, including captain Willie Engelbrecht.
For the first time in the Nelspruit side’s history, they start the season as the hunted rather than the hunters and it’ll be interesting to see how they handle the change in roles.
The Bulls still value the Currie Cup highly and will put particular importance on home games such as this. It’s also the first match with former Sharks mentor Sean Everitt being part of the coaching set-up, extra motivation that also points to a Bulls win.