Free State will field their Super Rugby side in Friday's opening Currie Cup match against the Sharks in Bloemfontein, writes MARIETTE ADAMS.
Free State Cheetahs vs Sharks
Free State sprung a surprise last year when they finished the league stage of the Currie Cup unbeaten, before going on to win the title. Now, heading into Friday's campaign opener, they are best placed to start their title defence on a positive note.
After missing out on a Super Rugby playoff spot – by quite some margin – new coach Rory Duncan had all their senior players available for selection. He proceeded to name a near full-strength side, including 13 Super Rugby and three Blitzboks players.
By contrast, the Sharks’ A-list players will do duty in the quarter-finals over the weekend, and caretaker Currie Cup coach Paul Anthony had to put together a team consisting mostly of the union’s fringe players who competed in the Provincial Rugby Challenge. Luckily Paul could call on experienced trio Odwa Ndungane, S’bura Sithole and captain Keegan Daniel, while new signings Ross Geldenhuys and Tyler Paul will also boost the match-day squad.
All things considered, Free State should win this encounter in Bloemfontein. In saying that, the Sharks could lay down an early marker if they stand up to this strong Cheetahs outfit.
Free State Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Rosco Speckman, 13 Francois Venter, 12 William Small-Smith, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Niel Marais, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Henco Venter, 7 Uzair Cassiem, 6 Niel Jordaan, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Carl Wegner, 3 Aranos Coetzee, 2 Joseph Dweba, 1 Charles Marais.
Subs: 16 Ox Nche, 17 Reinach Venter, 18 Rynier Bernado, 19 Chris Dry, 20 Zee Mkhabela, 21 JW Jonker. 22 Cecil Afrika.
Sharks – 15 Courtney Winnaar, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 S’bura Sithole, 12 Marius Louw, 11 Ilunga Mukendi, 10 Benhard Janse van Rensburg, 9 Rowan Gouws, 8 Keegan Daniel (c), 7 Jacques Vermeulen, 6 Khaya Majola, 5 Hyron Andrews, 4 Wian Vosloo, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Kerron van Vuuren, 1 Mzamo Majola.
Subs: 16 Andy du Plessis, 17 Thierry Kounga, 18 Tyler Paul, 19 Bandisa Ndlovu, 20 Cameron Wright, 21 Brandon Bailing, 22 Inny-Christian Radebe.
Griquas vs Blue Bulls
This clash could go either way, as both teams played consistently well in the Provincial Rugby Challenge. Going on form from that competition, Griquas should have the upper hand, as they made it to the final, where they fell short against Western Province.
However, Bulls coach Nollis Marais has shown his hand by naming an experienced squad for the tournament. The 49-man player group at Marais’ disposal is a complete overhaul of the squad that did duty in the Rugby Challenge.
Apart from Boks Jan Serfontein, Jesse Kriel, Lood de Jager, Trevor Nyakane and Handré Pollard, who have tripartite deals with SA Rugby, the availability of all other Super Rugby players for this game will inspire some confidence in the Bulls’ ranks.
Expect Griquas to compete well throughout the 80 minutes, but the Bulls should have enough firepower to pull off a win in their first game.
Griquas – 15 Adriaan Coertzen (c), 14 Ederies Arendse, 13 Tertius Kruger, 12 Clinton Swart, 11 Koch Marx, 10 Andre Swarts, 9 Christiaan Meyer, 8 Jonathan Janse van Rensburg, 7 Sias Koen, 6 RJ Liebenberg, 5 Floris Pelser, 4 Mzwanele Zito, 3 Ewald van der Westhuizen, 2 Abraham le Roux, 1 Liam Hendricks.
Subs: 16 Marius Fourie, 17 Nicolaas Oosthuizen, 18 Jonathan Adendorf, 19 Wendal Wehr, 20 Rudi Van Rooyen, 21 George Whitehead, 22 Enver Brandt.
Blue Bulls – 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Franco Naude, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Duncan Matthews, 10 Tony Jantjies, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Nic de Jager, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Boom Prinsloo (c), 5 Abongile Nonkontwana, 4 Ruben van Heerden, 3 Conraad van Vuuren, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Subs: 16 Jan-Henning Campher, 17 John-Roy Jenkinson, 18 Freddy Ngoza, 19 Shaun Adendorff, 20 Andre Warner, 21 Tinus de Beer, 22 JT Jackson.
Pumas vs Golden Lions
The Golden Lions were ousted in the semi-finals in 2016 and will want to prove a point in 2017, starting with a commanding performance against the Pumas in Nelspruit.
The Lions were the only team to beat the Pumas – home, away and in the quarter-finals – in the Rugby Challenge. Given that both are expected to field similar teams in round one of the Currie Cup, the visitors – who will be captained by former Sharks and Springbok No 8 Ryan Kankowski – are odds-on favourites to win again.
The visitors should be wary of the Pumas, though. Despite the defeats in 2017, the Pumas ran the Lions close in three high-scoring encounters, and with the stakes a little higher this time round they could cause an upset.
Pumas – 15 Gerrit Smith, 14 Jerome Pretorius, 13 Hennie Skorbinski (co-c), 12 Ryan Nell, 11 Ruwellyn Isbell, 10 Justin van Staden, 9 Stefan Ungerer, 8 Carel Greeff, 7 Nardus van der Walt, 6 Francois Kleinhans, 5 Hugo Kloppers (co-c), 4 Jeremy Jordaan, 3 Pieter Scholtz, 2 Mark Pretorius, 1 Mona Kwezi.
Subs: 16 Frank Herne, 17 DJ Terblanche, 18 Marne Coetzee, 19 Jannie Stander, 20 Lambert Groenewald, 21 Reynier van Rooyen, 22 Sias Ebersohn.
Golden Lions – 15 Ashlon Davids, 14 Madosh Tambwe, 13 Stokkies Hanekom, 12 Jarryd Sage, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Shaun Reynolds, 9 Marco Janse van Vuren, 8 Ryan Kankowski (c), 7 Jano Venter, 6 James Venter, 5 Rhyno Herbst, 4 Marvin Orie, 3 Andrew Beerwinkel, 2 Pieter Jansen 1 Sti Sithole.
Subs: 16 Mike Willemse, 17 Nico du Plessis, 18 Bobby de Wee, 19 Hacjivah Dayimani, 20 Fabian Booysen, 21 Bradley Thain, 22 Jan-Louis la Grange.
Photo: Charl Devenish/Gallo Images