With just three rounds remaining, the race for Currie Cup playoff places will intensify this weekend, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The pace-setting Bulls (42) and second-placed Cheetahs (41) have already secured home semi-finals and will be fighting it out for the all-important top spot over the next few weeks.
The Sharks (24), who have a bye this weekend, Griquas (21), and the Pumas (20) are locked in a chase for the other two playoff places, with Western Province (13) also having a slim chance of sneaking into the final four.
The Bulls will be out to consolidate their slender lead over the Cheetahs when they play host to the Pumas in Pretoria on Friday night.
In the first of Saturday’s fixtures, the Free Staters – who have a game in hand – face neighbours Griquas in Kimberley before the focus shifts to Johannesburg, where the last-placed Lions (5) and Western Province will be desperate to come out on top.
Bulls v Pumas
Friday, 27 May – 19:00
The Bulls are in a good position, not only in terms of topping the table but having plenty of momentum as well as the thrilling 43-37 win over a Lions side laden with United Rugby Championship stars in the previous round was their sixth in a row.
They’ll be wary of a wounded Pumas team, who squandered a golden opportunity to enter the top four by dropping a home game to Western Province. With just one home game remaining after playing the frontrunners on the road back-to-back, that loss last time out looks set to be campaign-defining.
They should welcome back a few key players who had to withdraw from the Province game at the 11th hour due to illness, but the Bulls have the pack to stand up to them and the backline to outgun them for a comfortable win.
Prediction: Bulls by 14.
Griquas v Cheetahs
Saturday, 28 May – 14:30
Having had a bye in the last round, the Peacock Blues will find it particularly tough to hit the ground running as they’ve been idling for three weeks.
The unbeaten Cheetahs are the last team you want to face when you’re undercooked, not only because of the defensive challenges it’s set to spawn, but also because it’s likely to rob you of an opportunity to land early blows, which is when the Free Staters have been vulnerable.
As a result, the Cheetahs, who’re coming off a Rosko Specman-inspired 44-15 win over the Sharks and boosted by the news that the legendary duo of Ruan Pienaar and Frans Steyn have both signed contract extensions, will canter to a Central derby double.
Prediction: Cheetahs by 16.
Lions v Western Province
Saturday, 27 May – 17:00
In the last round, the Lions came close to breaking their duck whereas Province managed to pull off the upset. In a campaign full of losses, the narrow defeat to the Bulls was a bitter pill of a different kind as they’d stacked the deck with URC stars.
Now that their URC season is over, you’d expect them to utilise those stars over the next few weeks to avoid a dreaded winless campaign. If they do, I’d back them to beat Province as the drop in standard between the Capetonians’ URC and Currie Cup sides is steeper than that of the Bulls.
If, on the other hand, they opt not to bring in their big hitters for some reason, Province should prevail off the back of the massive morale-boosting 23-17 win over the Pumas that snapped a seven-match losing streak.
Prediction: Lions, with their URC stars, by 10, or Western Province by 5.