The Blue Bulls, Golden Lions and Free State Cheetahs face a scrap for semi-final qualification in the final round before the Currie Cup playoffs, writes JON CARDINELLI.
BLUE BULLS vs PUMAS (Friday, 19:00)
The Bulls scored 10 tries in their 64-36 thrashing of the Free State Cheetahs last week. Their attack has fired this season and they have reason to believe that a bonus-point win against the Pumas is within their reach.
According to alloutrugby.com, John Mitchell's charges have made more linebreaks, carries and metres than any other side this season. They also top the try-scoring charts, with 56.
Only the Cheetahs have missed more tackles than the Pumas in the 2017 Currie Cup. The Pumas are ranked fifth for tackle-completion (82%). They may struggle to contain this Bulls side at Loftus Versfeld.
The Bulls have what it takes to score four or more tries in the coming clash. They should be favourites to win at home.
That said, there are a couple of stats that show why the Bulls are in fifth place at this point and why they could struggle to make an impact in the knockout phase (should they progress). Their defence has been less than consistent (as suggested by an 84% tackle-completion), and they have averaged 10 fewer kicks from hand than the top-ranked side and tournament leaders, the Sharks.
The Bulls need to start playing with more balance if they are going to challenge for the title itself.
Blue Bulls – 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Duncan Matthews, 13 Burger Odendaal (c), 12 JT Jackson, 11 Johnny Kotze, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Ivan van Zyl, 8 Nic de Jager, 7 Tim Agaba, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 Aston Fortuin, 4 Ruben van Heerden, 3 Conraad van Vuuren, 2 Edgar Marutlulle, 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Subs: 16 Johan Grobbelaar, 17 Matthys Basson, 18 Jano Venter, 19 Boom Prinsloo, 20 Piet van Zyl, 21 Tony Jantjies, 22 Travis Ismaiel.
Pumas – 15 Gerrit Smit, 14 Selom Gavor, 13 Jerome Pretorius, 12 Hennie Skorbinski, 11 Ruwellyn Isbel, 10 Kobus Marais, 9 Stefan Ungerer, 8 Willie Engelbrecht, 7 Nardus van der Walt, 6 Chris Cloete, 5 Hugo Kloppers, 4 Jannie Stander, 3 Pieter Scholtz, 2 Marko Janse van Rensburg, 1 Khwezi Mona.
Subs: 16 Frankie Herne, 17 De-Jay Terblanche, 18 Cameron Lindsay, 19 Hilton Lobberts, 20 Francois Kleinhans, 21 Reynier van Rooyen, 22 Gerrie Labuschagne.
SHARKS vs WESTERN PROVINCE (Saturday, 15:00)
The Sharks have won 10 of their 11 games to date, and have taken an unassailable lead at the top of the Currie Cup log. They will host a semi-final at Kings Park next week.
Robert du Preez's selections for the final round-robin match against WP – a meaningless game for the Sharks but a crucial one for Province in terms of final log positions – suggest that the Sharks want to take some momentum into the playoffs.
Du Preez has picked a strong side. Lukhanyo Am's return should boost the Sharks' potency in midfield. Dan du Preez will provide the Sharks with plenty of go-forward, while his brother Jean-Luc should make an impact from the bench later in the game.
Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Siya Kolisi are contracted to the Boks and will not be available for the remainder of WP's campaign. Province will be hoping that utility back Dillyn Leyds and tighthead prop Wilco Louw, who both made their Test debuts this season, can provide the Cape side with a timely lift.
WP need to beat the Sharks in Durban this Saturday to secure a home semi-final. A couple of bonus points in a losing cause – one for four or more tries and the other for losing by seven or fewer points – may see them finishing higher than the Lions or Cheetahs, though.
WP rank second in the tournament for tries scored (54). Can they breach the defence of the Sharks? Du Preez's side has conceded the fewest points in the tournament (90 points fewer than the next best side).
It will also be interesting to see how WP go about combating the Sharks' kicking game. The Sharks are the top side in the competition for kicks from hand and kick metres. The likes of Curwin Bosch will look to boot the hosts into good field positions and perhaps test that WP back-three with a series of high balls this Saturday.
Sharks – 15 Garth April, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Marius Louw, 11 S'bu Nkosi, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Michael Claassens, 8 Dan du Preez, 7 Jacques Vermeulen, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Ruan Botha (c), 4 Tyler Paul, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Thomas du Toit.
Subs: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Jean Droste, 19 Jean-Luc du Preez, 20 Louis Schreuder, 21 Tristan Blewett, 22 Kobus van Wyk.
Western Province – 15 Damian Willemse, 14 Seabelo Senatla, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Ruhan Nel, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Cobus Wiese, 6 Jaco Coetzee, 5 JD Schickerling, 4 Chris van Zyl (c), 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg.
Subs: 16 Ramone Samuels, 17 Caylib Oosthuizen, 18 Jan de Klerk, 19 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 20 Justin Phillips, 21 Werner Kok, 22 EW Viljoen.
GOLDEN LIONS vs FREE STATE CHEETAHS (Saturday, 17:15)
The Lions are coming off a 29-20 win against WP. The Cheetahs leaked 10 tries in their most recent battle with the Bulls. It's fair to say that the Lions will go into this clash as favourites.
The Lions have been boosted by the return of four Boks. That said, the Cheetahs side has been strengthened by the return of players who have been away on Pro14 duty in recent weeks. The big question is whether these returning stars can lift the Cheetahs in areas like defence and ultimately steer the Bloemfontein-based side to a win.
The Cheetahs have leaked 414 points to date (only Griquas have conceded more in this year's competition). They've missed the most tackles and their reluctance to kick from hand has often further compromised their defence.
Not that the Lions have been much better in this department. The Lions head into the final round-robin clash with the worst points-difference (-76) in the tournament. Neither their attack nor their defence has been of a high standard.
A win for the Lions this Saturday would earn them the right to host a semi-final. A loss may bring an end to their campaign. The inclusion of Malcolm Marx, Ross Cronjé, Courtnall Skosan and Andries Coetzee should make the difference for the Lions during the latter stages of the tournament.
Golden Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 13 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Jaco van der Walt, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Kwagga Smith, 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Len Massyn, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Jacques van Rooyen (c).
Subs: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Rhyno Herbst, 19 Robert Kruger/ Hacjivah Dayimani, 20 Marco Jansen van Vuren, 21 Ashlon Davids, 22 Sylvian Mahuza.
Free State Cheetahs – 15 Raymond Rhule, 14 Rosko Specman, 13 Nico Lee, 12 William Small-Smith, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Ernst Stapelberg, 9 Tian Meyer, 8 Oupa Mohoje, 7 Henco Venter, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Justin Basson, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld (c), 1 Charles Marais.
Subs: 16 Ox Nche, 17 Hacques du Toit, 18 Rynier Bernardo, 19 Junior Pokomela, 20 Shaun Venter, 21 Ali Mjijima, 22 Luther Obi.
Photo: Chris Ricco/Backpagepix
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