It's win or bust for the Blue Bulls against the Free State Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Friday, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
Free State Cheetahs vs Blue Bulls
That's the predicament the Bulls find themselves in after stumbling through the first seven rounds of the competition. One performance against the Golden Lions does not a season make, and they're quickly beginning to realise that. A win for the Cheetahs will effectively end the Bulls' play-off hopes. Can they turn it around? I'm not so sure.
They welcome back captain Deon Stegmann for this one, but he remains a shadow of the player who received six caps for the Springboks in 2010. What's more, as a leader he has struggled with his discipline this season, conceding numerous penalties and even a red card in his last outing.
Frans Ludeke has made a number of changes for the trip to Bloem, in a bid to bring about a change in fortunes. Bongi Mbonambi gets a deserved start, but Piet van Zyl's inclusion over Rudy Paige is puzzling. JJ Engelbrecht will be looking to recapture the form that made him a Springbok regular in 2013, while Burger Odendaal will need to improve on last week's showing.
The Cheetahs are greatly improved by the returning Coenie Oosthuizen, Jean Cook and Rayno Benjamin. All three possess game-breaking ability, and could well prove the difference on Friday evening.
STEGMANN'S STATS THAT MATTER
3 – The number of turnovers he's won in this year's Currie Cup (Rank 10)
8 – The number of penalties he's conceded (Rank 11)
60 – The number of tackles he's made (Rank 27)
Source: Vodacom Stats App
FS Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Rayno Benjamin, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Joubert Engelbrecht, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Willie du Plessis, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Jean Cook, 7 Lappies Labuschagne, 6 Tienie Burger, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Henco Venter, 3 George Marich, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld (c), 1 Coenie Oosthuizen.
Subs: 16 Hercu Liebenberg, 17 Caylib Oosthuizen, 18 Werner Lourens, 19 Neil Claassen, 20 Shaun Venter, 21 Pieter-Steyn de Wet, 22 JP du Plessis.
Blue Bulls – 15 Ulrich Beyers, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Sampie Mastriet, 10 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Jono Ross, 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 Paul Willemse, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Dean Greyling.
Subs: 16 Callie Visagie, 17 Morné Mellet, 18 Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg, 19 Wiaan Liebenberg, 20 Rudy Paige, 21 Tian Schoeman, 22 Jesse Kriel.
Pumas vs Western Province
Western Province have the advantage of playing first this weekend. A win will pile the pressure on the Golden Lions, who travel to Kimberley for a tricky fixture on Saturday. Friday's match at the Mbombela Stadium conjures up a tantalising duel, between two of the season's top performers.
Nizaam Carr and Renaldo Bothma have been their respective teams' go-to men this season. They may differ in approach, but not in effectiveness. While Bothma uses his body as a battering ram, Carr is more subtle, and provides a great link for WP's devastating outside backs.
A member of the Springbok training squad this past week, Carr's tackle stats reflect the mountain of work he gets through, but also a potential downfall in his game, having missed a league high 24 tackles this season.
Province have made just one change for this one, with Pat Cilliers replacing Brok Harris in the front row. In stark contrast, the Pumas have made several changes, most notably at flyhalf, where JC Roos is favoured over Justin van Staden.
CARR'S STATS THAT MATTER
150 – The number of tackles he's made in this year's Currie Cup (Rank 1)
24 – The number of tackles he's missed (Rank 1)
14 – The number of offloads he's made (Rank 2)
Source: Vodacom Stats App
Pumas – 15 JW Bell, 14 Ruwellyn Isbell, 13 JW Jonker, 12 Stefan Watermeyer, 11 Rosco Speckman, 10 JC Roos, 9 Reynier van Rooyen, 8 Renaldo Bothma/RW Kember, 7 Jaco Bouwer, 6 Corné Steenkamp (c), 5 Giant Mtyanda, 4 Marius Coetzer, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Frankie Herne, 1 Corné Fourie.
Subs: 16 Francois du Toit, 17 DeJay Terblanche, 18 Uzair Cassiem, 19 RW Kember/Christo le Roux, 20 Dylon Frylinck, 21 Justin van Staden, 22 Jerome Pretorius.
Western Province – 15 Cheslin Kolbe, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Juan de Jongh (c), 12 Jaco Taute, 11 Justin Geduld, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Michael Rhodes, 6 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 5 Ruan Botha, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Pat Cilliers, Scarra Ntubeni, 1 Alistair Vermaak.
Subs: 16 Neil Rautenbach, 17 Brok Harris, 18 Manuel Carizza, 19 Rohan Kitshoff, 20 Nic Groom, 21 Kurt Coleman, 22 Michael van der Spuy.
Sharks vs EP Kings
The Sharks snapped out of their mid-season slump with a victory at Loftus, their first in four outings. Captain Tera Mtembu was named Man of the Match for his contribution, with the eighthman producing another stellar performance.
Mtembu remains an unfinished product, though, which is reflected in his stats for the season. While no one can fault his effort, at times he attempts to do too much when the basics would suffice. It's a fault that's been something of a hallmark for the Sharks this season.
The Sharks are likely to benefit from some continuity this weekend, with Khaya Majola's inclusion the only change to the starting XV for the visit from the EP Kings. Stephan Lewies will continue his comeback from a knee injury from the bench.
The Kings are onto their third captain after Steven Sykes was ruled out with a knee injury. Darron Nell will take over the mantle, in a side boasting several changes from the one that surrendered meekly to the Cheetahs. Charles Marais and CJ van der Linde will bolster the front row, while Tim Whitehead will be hoping to spark some life into the backline.
MTEMBU'S STATS THAT MATTER
50 – The number of carries he's made in this year's Currie Cup (Rank 21)
15 – The number of handling errors he's made (Rank 4)
9 – The number of offloads he's made (Rank 9)
Source: Vodacom Stats App
Sharks – 15 SP Marais, 14 S’bura Sithole, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Lionel Cronjé, 9 Conrad Hoffmann, 8 Tera Mtembu (c), 7 Etienne Oosthuizen, 6 Khaya Majola, 5 Marco Wentzel, 4 JC Astle, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Kyle Cooper, 1 Dale Chadwick.
Subs: 16 Franco Marais, 17 Danie Mienie, 18 Stephan Lewies, 19 Johan Meyer, 20 Cameron Wright, 21 Tim Swiel, 22 Tonderai Chavhanga.
EP Kings – 15 Siviwe Soyizwapi, 14 Ronnie Cooke, 13 Tim Whitehead, 12 Shane Gates, 11 Ntabeni Dukisa, 10 Gary van Aswegen, 9 Tobie Botes, 8 Paul Schoeman, 7 Devin Oosthuizen, 6 Stefan Willemse, 5 Darron Nell (c), 4 Steven Cummins, 3 CJ van der Linde, 2 Martin Ferreira, 1 Charles Marais.
Substitutes: 16 Albe de Swardt, 17 Charl du Plessis, 18 Cameron Lindsay, 19 Thembelani Bholi, 20 Tim Agaba, 21 Kevin Luiters, 22 Scott van Breda.
Griquas vs Golden Lions
The Lions look set for a home semi-final berth, but coach Johan Ackermann hasn't given up on achieving the top spot – and a possible home final – just yet. In the absence of Warren Whiteley, Jaco Kriel has played a key role for the Johannesburg team, with ball in hand and also on defence.
His combination with Willie Britz and Kwagga Smith has been a feature of the Lions' play in recent weeks, although Smith misses out due to rotation.
The Lions were buoyed earlier this week by the return of Marnitz Boshoff, who will feature off the bench on Saturday. Elsewhere, Ross Cronjé returns from injury, while Howard Mnisi will get a rare start in the midfield as Ackermann looks to freshen up with the play-offs in mind.
Their opponents this weekend have made several injury-enforced changes for the match in Kimberley. Flyhalf Francois Brummer, eighthman Burger Schoeman, flank Marnus Schoeman and prop Steph Roberts are all unavailable. Brummer is replaced by Dean Grant, while Carel Greeff and Janro van Niekerk come into the starting lineup at No 8 and loosehead prop respectively.
KRIEL'S STATS THAT MATTER
8 – The number of clean breaks he's made in this year's Currie Cup (Rank 1)
5 – The number of tries he's scored (Rank 1)
7 – The number of turnovers he's won (Rank 2)
Source: Vodacom Stats App
Griquas – 15 Gouws Prinsloo, 14 Ederies Arendse, 13 Jonathan Francke, 12 Wayne Stevens (c), 11 PJ Vermeulen, 10 Dean Grant, 9 Tian Meyer, 8 Carel Greeff, 7 Jaco Nepgen, 6 Ruaan Lerm, 5 Hugo Kloppers, 4 Hilton Lobberts, 3 Maks van Dyk, 2 Martin Bezuidenhout, 1 Janro van Niekerk.
Subs: 16 Ryno Barnes, 17 Simon Westraadt, 18 RJ Liebenberg, 19 Marnus Schoeman, 20 Abrie Griesel, 21 Jacquin Jansen, 22 Danie Dames.
Golden Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe (c), 12 Howard Mnisi, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Jaco van der Walt, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Willie Britz, 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Martin Muller, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Armand van der Merwe, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Subs: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Schalk van der Merwe/Julian Redelinghuys, 18 Derick Minnie, 19 Kwagga Smith, 20 Mark Richards, 21 Marnitz Boshoff, 22 Stokkies Hanekom.
Photo: Gerhard Steenkamp/BackpagePix