27 August 2019, by: Quintin van Jaarsveld
CURRIE CUP SEMI-FINALS: KEY BATTLES
A smorgasbord of mouth-watering head-to-head battles will add extra spice to this weekend’s Currie Cup semi-finals, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
To reach the play-offs requires a collective effort from an entire squad. Every squad member has to fulfil their individual roles for a side to function like a well-oiled machine. Synergy and consistency are key to successfully navigating the potholes and speed bumps on the road to the semi-finals.
This forms the foundation on which champion teams are built, however, due to the do-or-die nature of play-off rugby, individual performances often prove decisive. Winning key positional battles are vital building blocks toward victory, and there’s no shortage of such head-to-head duels on Saturday.
Griquas, the only semi-final side sans Springboks, are the underdogs in this regard. As an unheralded group of ‘no-name’ players, Griquas’ strength lies in their unity. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts and has propelled them to their first semi-final since 1998. It does, however, mean that the Kimberley side’s key men have their work cut out for them against a Golden Lions side boasting a number of current and future Springboks.
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A week after featuring for the Springboks against Argentina, Orie made a major impact in Kimberley last weekend. His class shone through as his lineout mastery saw the Lions dominate the set-piece. With Orie calling the shots, the Lions’ lineout ran like clockwork on their ball and saw them snatch a few on Griquas’ throw, most notably Hacjivah Dayimani’s steal that led to Madosh Tambwe’s try.
Sekekete’s the one who’ll have to mastermind a different strategy and put more pressure on his opposite number. A promising player, the 25-year-old is a former Junior Springbok and is familiar with the Lions’ structures having represented the region at age-group level and having made his Currie Cup debut for the union back in 2016. As a utility forward, he shifts between lock and flank, a strength on one hand but a weakness when it comes to going up against a specialist like Orie.
Like Sekekete, it’s a lot to ask of Koen to keep Brink quiet. The Lions blindside flank has played himself into the Springbok squad on more than one occasion only to be cruelly denied what had appeared to be an inevitable Test debut – first, due to a shoulder injury, followed by a serious knee injury he sustained in a national training camp last year.
He’s struggled with injury again this season but came through last weekend’s clash unscathed. In what was his first start this season, Brink looked the business and played the full 80 minutes. A complete loose forward, he’ll be eager to make up for lost time, so expect a big game from the 25-year-old.
Koen cut his teeth at the Sharks, where he graduated from the academy and Under-21 ranks to the Vodacom Cup team, before making the move to Griquas in 2016. A staple in the side since, he has another opportunity to make a name for himself against Brink.
THE key head-to-head battle of the contest. After their tit-for-tat first encounter, the playmakers’ ‘rematch’ promises to be just as riveting and pivotal to determining which of these sides will feature in the final.
Whitehead has been the deadliest sniper off the tee this season with a success rate in the nineties. His stellar goal-kicking has been a major part of Griquas’ success but as Murphy’s Law would have it, his uncharacteristic missed conversion opened the door for the Lions, and Reynolds walked right through it and slotted the match-winning penalty. Known largely as a journeyman, Whitehead has been the form flyhalf of this year’s competition. He’s looked as good as he ever has and his overall marshalling of his team has been outstanding.
Reynolds has been solid if not spectacular, and has shown at Super Rugby level that he can boss a team and possesses match-winning qualities. The long-time understudy of Elton Jantjies has a golden opportunity to make a statement and lead the Lions to the final in front of their home crowd this weekend.
This clash between a rising and resurgent star is set to thrill. The fearless fullbacks have been key players and magic men for their respective teams all season, creating and scoring some scintillating tries. Green has carried his rich vein of form from his rookie Super Rugby season into the Currie Cup and is arguably the Player of the Tournament to date. You just can’t seem to keep the former Junior Springbok out of the game; he injects himself into the action with raw intensity, be it on attack or defence, and makes big plays more often than not.
Volmink, a former Lions star, has reminded all of his attacking prowess and try-scoring ability for Griquas this season. During the height of his career at the Lions, he was of the best wings in the country and holds the South African tries-per-game record for his nine tries in the Lions’ 161-3 win over the Limpopo Blue Bulls during the 2013 Vodacom Cup. At 29, he’s shown that he’s still a danger man.
After his excellent performance off the bench last weekend, we expect Nche will return to the starting line-up to set-up a colossal clash of Springbok props. Both behemoths are excellent scrummagers, strong ball carriers and incredibly mobile around the park.
Although he hasn’t been in the Springbok picture since his first and only Test appearance against Wales last June, Nche is still very much seen as the next big thing and his suspected move to the Sharks as Tendai Mtawarira’s successor in 2020 has now been confirmed.
Oosthuizen has been outstanding all season. Clearly motivated to end his career at the Sharks on a high, the Sale-bound brute has been producing Test-level performances in all departments. After being overlooked by Rassie Erasmus, Oosthuizen’s action-packed outings says a lot about the character of the man and the love he has for the Sharks jersey. Expect another massive effort from the Bok veteran in what could be his Sharks swansong.
Venter, like Nche, is on his way to the Sharks next year. Another one of the stars of this year’s Currie Cup, he was particularly prolific in last weekend’s comeback win over Western Province. A hard-as-nails, hungry eighthman, he smashed over the gainline time and time again and made some dominant tackles against the Capetonians. He’ll look to continue his rich form in this ‘trial’ against his main rival for the black and white No.8 jersey next season.
Mtembu, who’s been mightily unlucky with injuries over the years, will be most pleased with the fact that his body has held up well this season. A class act and a born leader, the 28-year-old is finally enjoying an extended run and seems to be improving with each passing week. As co-captain, he needs to have a big game to inspire the visitors.
The most anticipated of all the head-to-head match-ups this weekend what we’re concerned, this may prove to be a case of the past meeting the future. Pienaar deserves a lot of credit for last weekend’s come-from-behind win; his cool head, fast distribution and great decision-making is what drove the Cheetahs’ offence and saw them score six tries. It took a couple of games for him to gel with his new teammates, but it’s safe to say the Bok veteran has found his feet and he’ll unquestionably be a key man come Saturday.
Nohamba has been a revelation since being given an opportunity in the run-on side by Sharks coach Sean Everitt back in Round Five. The young scrumhalf backed up his back-to-back Man of the Match efforts against the Cheetahs and Lions with another pivotal performance in the 48-40 win over the Blue Bulls at Loftus last weekend, scoring 18 points with his accurate goal-kicking on top of providing crisp service and having a key hand in some of the tries.
Small-Smith has a big task on his hands as he has to find a way to contain the Sharks’ midfield monster. The Cheetahs centre will have a clear speed advantage and has more strings to his bow – qualities that saw him represent the Blitzboks back in 2011-2012. He was also a member of the Under-20 Junior World Championship-winning Baby Bok team in 2012.
There’s nothing ‘baby’ about his direct opponent on Saturday, though. Esterhuizen is a mountain of a man and one of the unlucky few to miss out on a place in the Springbok World Cup squad after featuring in the triumphant Rugby Championship squad. Big, strong and physical, he relishes contact and almost always powers over the advantage line. He made his presence felt with force in his return to the Sharks last weekend and will be determined to deliver another dominant display.
The timing of this tantalising tussle couldn’t be better as both fullbacks are fresh off Man of the Match performances. They’re equally electric – X-factor players who share an attacking mindset and natural gifts to unlock defences in thrilling fashion.
Blommetjies has always had the tools to be a game-breaker of the highest order. He proved it again against Province. His main issue has been inconsistency, and in recent years his desire has been questioned. Last September, Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac openly stated that he was not impressed with Blommetjies’ fitness and said he would be put him on a conditioning programme. He was earlier this year loaned to English club Leicester Tigers before Scarlets opted to end his two-year contract after only a year. His return to the Cheetahs has done him and the union wonders.
Fassi was phenomenal at Loftus, looking like the future Springbok we tipped him to be during the Super Rugby season. He bamboozled Bulls defenders with his fancy feet, sheer speed and outstanding offloads. The Cheetahs will know that their tactical kicking will have to be on point to limit the lethal Sharks prodigy’s time and space.
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