The two-time Currie Cup winners, the defending Bulls face never-say-die Griquas in the first final-four fixture at Loftus Versfeld on Friday night with the table-topping Cheetahs playing host to the unpredictable Pumas in Bloemfontein on Saturday afternoon.
Bulls v Griquas
Friday, 17 June – 19:00
Griquas have grown with every game in their first season under Pieter Bergh and will pose a legitimate threat. They’re well-balanced and well-drilled and driven by the die-hard DNA the Peacock Blues have always been known for.
They highlighted that fighting spirit with two miraculous comebacks over the last fortnight, an epic 43-41 win over Western Province in Stellenbosch followed by a shock 45-44 triumph over the Pumas in Nelspruit.
Unfortunately for the Northern Cape minnows, the latter came at a heavy cost, with scrumhalf Stefan Ungerer and seasoned hooker Simon Westraadt suffering injuries in the brutal battle.
The Bulls brass have spoken about their desire to complete a rare three-peat all season long. That they’re the only United Rugby Championship franchise who qualified for the semi-finals speaks to their supreme structures and depth and is commendable in its own right, but for the ambitious bunch from Pretoria, the job’s not done yet.
Obviously, Saturday’s URC final against the Stormers is the main focus, but with their domestic title on the line, they’re set to welcome back key players who’ve contributed to the Currie Cup cause all season but missed last weekend’s game against the Cheetahs to serve as wider URC squad members in Dublin.
It should be tight for the most part, but the combination of the hosts’ reinforcements and the visitors’ injury blows should see the defending champions break Griquas’ hearts.
Cheetahs v Pumas
Saturday, 18 June – 13:30
All-square at 1-1, the high-stakes tie-breaking catfight should be a cracker. The Cheetahs prevailed 28-17 in the first tie in Nelspruit, with the Pumas counter-punching with a surprising 29-28 triumph in Bloemfontein two weeks ago.
Ruan Pienaar had a late chance to win the second clash but pushed his long-range penalty kick wide. It was a rare miss by the Cheetahs’ captain and tournament’s leading points-scorer but a deserved win for the visitors, which got them back into the playoff picture.
What that match and last weekend’s game against Griquas highlighted was how potent the Pumas are when they’re allowed to shoot out of the blocks. They’re smooth as silk when they generate quick ball and hard to contain when they build early momentum.
Jimmy Stonehouse gives the likes of Thinus de Beer, Eddie Fouche, Sebastian de Klerk and Devon Williams a license to thrill and that fearless freedom gives them an edge unlike any other team in the competition. As a result, they’re the one side who shouldn’t follow the norm of playing conservative knockout rugby but rather stick with what brought them to the dance.
Indiscipline remains a big issue for the Pumas, two yellow cards allowing the Peacock Blues to fight back and eventually steal the late win last week. It would be devastating for the minnows if they were to shoot themselves in the foot in their first semi-final appearance in four decades.
Last weekend’s pivotal game against a depleted Bulls team was exactly what the Cheetahs needed, not only because the 35-5 win saw them leapfrog the defending champions to finish top of the log but just as importantly, because it allowed them to regain their rhythm.
The Free Staters played with the fluidity that had fuelled their nine-match unbeaten streak before the back-to-back losses to Griquas and the Lowvelders, while their accuracy in the set pieces and at the breakdown as well as the organisation of their maul have them back on track.
They’ll feel they lost the last encounter against themselves as opposed to the Pumas by gifting them an early lead and the stoic defensive effort against the Bulls would’ve steeled them. All in all, a more focused and synergised Cheetah’s side should be too good for the game visitors.