The Free State Cheetahs will be favourites to down the Blue Bulls in the Currie Cup final in Bloemfontein on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
It's been six years since the Bulls last won any trophy of significance (in the 2010 Super 14), and seven since they last won the Currie Cup. For the Cheetahs, it's been nine long years since they last claimed the South African domestic title.
While the Currie Cup is no longer South Africa's premier tournament, there is certainly some hype around this particular final. The Free State Stadium will be packed to capacity this Saturday as the Cheetahs and the Bulls look to end their respective title droughts.
Seven of the last nine finals have been won by the hosts, while the 2006 title was shared by the Cheetahs and the Bulls. While Free State will have the benefit of home advantage this Saturday, it could be their form and confidence that propels them to glory.
The Cheetahs topped the log after winning all eight of their league matches. In the semi-final in Bloemfontein, Franco Smith's charges moved up a gear to score six tries and 55 points against the Golden Lions.
The Cheetahs' much-improved defence has been at the heart of their recent success. And yet, their attacking stats make for impressive reading. The Bulls will have their hands full on defence this Saturday.
The Cheetahs lineout, with a success rate of 90%, has provided the backline with a terrific platform this season. Free State have also bossed the collisions, and have looked to strike from turnovers.
According to SARugbymag.co.za's Opta-powered stats, the Cheetahs have made fewer carries than the Bulls. Yet, the Cheetahs have managed to make more metres than the Bulls, and have averaged 5.4m with every carry.
The Bulls boast a better defensive record in the sense that their tackle completion is 84% (compared to the Cheetahs' 82%). The more pragmatic side from Pretoria also boasts a strong set piece as well as a kicking flyhalf that can win matches.
No team has kicked more than the Bulls in this year's Currie Cup. To illustrate the difference between the Bulls' approach and that of the Cheetahs, the former side has completed 198 kicks in play and the latter just 158. Flyhalf Tian Schoeman has completed 20 more kicks than the next best player in this category, namely Robert du Preez of Western Province.
If the Bulls scrum fires consistently, Schoeman will have the platform to implement the visitors' game plan. While there should be a drive for territory in the first half, the Bulls also possess the joint-top try-scorer, Jamba Ulengo, in their ranks. They also have an 84.5% goal-kicking record, and their first-choice goal-kicker Schoeman (137) is the leading point-scorer in the tournament.
Can the Bulls take advantage of the Cheetahs' ill-discipline, particularly at the scrum? Props Ox Nche and Charles Marais have conceded the most and second-most penalties to date. Schoeman could make the Cheetahs pay for their transgressions on Saturday.
That said, the Bulls may battle to win the collisions. Their set piece will also be weakened by the injury-enforced absence of lock RG Snyman.
Paul Schoeman has been a star for the Cheetahs at the breakdown, and when Free State get on the front foot, their dangerous backs tend to take full advantage. Nico Lee (16, the second-most in the competition), Rayno Benjamin and Raymond Rhule (13, the joint third-most) will all present a linebreak threat. Skipper Francois Venter is no attacking slouch either.
This final promises to be a closely contested affair. In the end, the Cheetahs should claim a deserved title victory.
Free State Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francois Venter (c), 12 Nico Lee, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Niel Marais, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Niell Jordaan, 7 Uzair Cassiem, 6 Tier Schoeman, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Justin Basson, 3 Aranos Coetzee, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Charles Marais.
Subs: 16 Jacques du Toit, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Armandt Koster, 19 Henco Venter, 20 Tian Meyer, 21 Fred Zeilinga, 22 Rayno Benjamin, 23 Conraad van Vuuren.
Blue Bulls – 15 Ulrich Beyers, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Dries Swanepoel, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Arno Botha (c), 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Roelof Smit, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
Subs: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Martin Dreyer, 18 Pierre Schoeman, 19 Nic de Jager, 20 Hanro Liebenberg, 21 Ivan van Zyl, 22 Joshua Stander, 23 Bjorn Basson.
Photo: Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images