We’re down to the final four as the Currie Cup reaches crunch time in the semi-finals on Saturday, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The defending champion Pumas are still standing, but three title-hungry challengers are circling.
The table-topping Cheetahs host the Bulls in Bloemfontein in the first playoff before the Sharks welcome the Pumas to Kings Park.
Cheetahs v Bulls
Saturday, 17 June – 15:00
After their drama-filled instant classic at Loftus Versfeld last weekend, the rematch in Bloemfontein could go either way.
On one hand, you can look at the character the Cheetahs showed to come back from 19-0 down to edge it 31-27, and the fact that they’ll have home-ground advantage this time around. On the other, you can consider the fight of the Bulls, who had to play with 14 men for 42 minutes after losing Elrigh Louw to a red card.
The key area the Cheetahs bossed was the breakdown. This allowed the Free Staters to stop the bleeding after the Bulls’ fast start and turn the tide. Gideon van der Merwe did good work, but more than that, it was the counter-rucking of the Cheetahs that caught the Bulls off guard. They’ll be better prepared and commit more numbers to the rucks this weekend.
The Bulls will also want to make better use of their scrum, where they had the upper hand before Louw saw red, specifically, Gerhard Steenekamp getting the better of Conraad van Vuuren.
The Cheetahs put good pressure on the men from Pretoria’s lineout and did an excellent job stuffing their driving mauls. The gainline battle, meanwhile, was evenly contested and we can expect both sides to ramp up the physicality even more.
The Bulls showed in the first quarter how lethal they can be at full complement. Fifteen on fifteen, they are more dynamic than the Cheetahs, so I’m tipping Jake White’s charges to pip it.
Sharks v Pumas
Saturday, 17 June – 17:30
“So, about last Saturday…” Like the opening line of an apology after a drunk night out, so Joey Mongalo had to own up to his mistake of overhauling a side that had won seven straight for last weekend’s trip to Cape Town.
Loading up on big-name United Rugby Championship stars and making 14 changes in all, the Sharks side looked fierce on paper but flopped spectacularly, enduring a 44-5 drubbing by Western Province that cost them a possible home final.
The flip side is that the Currie Cup combination, which you’d assume Mongalo will revert to (with some URC talent sprinkled in between), will be rested after sitting out and ready to pick up where they left off.
They’ll need to after the Pumas came good in Kimberley, rediscovering the bite that earned them their maiden title last year as they came from behind to claim a 27-17 win and break Griquas’ hearts for the second year running.
The heroic defensive effort in the first half, in particular, would’ve built up their belief again after the three consecutive losses that preceded it and will make the Pumas dangerous cats in Durban.
The Sharks did the double over Jimmy Stonehouse’s troops in the league phase, but both were close encounters. The 19-12 win in Durban, with 14 men, was quite the upset as the Pumas entered the game unbeaten, and just two points (24-22) separated the sides in Nelspruit. Thus, expect another hard-fought contest.
What it boils down to is the Sharks’ tactical, territory-based game against the Pumas’ ability to produce moments of magic, convert their opportunities and hang tough.
If the Sharks get off to a slow start, like they did in their last home game against the Lions, there’s every chance that the Pumas will spoil their party. However, the rested hosts will be wise to this and should outlast the spirited visitors to ensure new champions will be crowned in the final.