SP Marais scored 30 points to steer Western Province to a 35-32 extra-time win over the Blue Bulls in the Currie Cup semi-final at Newlands on Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Province claimed six consecutive bonus-point wins over the course of the league phase. They dominated on attack and defence, and won every game by 22 points or more.
Coach John Dobson wasn’t joking, though, when he expressed his concern on the eve of the semi-final against the Bulls.
‘We haven’t been stress-tested,’ he said. Dobson was worried that his players wouldn’t know how to respond if they were put under pressure in a knockout situation. Unfortunately for WP, Dobson’s fears were well-founded.
The Province scrum picked up from where it left off last week, with Ali Vermaak and Wilco Louw dominating opposite numbers Dayan van der Westhuizen and Trevor Nyakane respectively. The Bulls were more physical across the board, however, clattering into the WP players and forcing the hosts to operate well behind the gainline.
Ruan Steenkamp and Duncan Matthews scored tries to steer the Bulls to a 17-15 lead at half-time. At that point, the only thing keeping WP in the game was the flawless goal-kicking boot of Marais.
The Bulls struck another significant blow when Manie Libbok crossed the line after the break. This time, Matthews found his flyhalf with a miracle offload and the WP defence had no answer.
Province hit back right away. Dillyn Leyds raced down the left-hand touchline and found Marais with a basketball pass. The left wing beat the defence, and then kicked the conversion despite the windy conditions to reduce the deficit to two points.
The hosts regained the lead on the hour-mark when reserve scrumhalf Paul de Wet dived over the tryline. The hard work was done by Sergeal Petersen in the buildup, though. The right wing beat the Bulls to a bouncing ball on the halfway line, and then took play deep into Bulls territory.
Marais showed terrific composure to nail the conversion. Suddenly the momentum was with the hosts. They took their next opportunity to score, and it wasn’t surprising to see Marais adding another three to the team’s tally.
Province enjoyed several chances to score thereafter, but were let down by individual handling errors and poor decision-making. How different the finish to the contest may have been if WP had been more clinical during that period. As it was, the hosts were forced to defend their tryline at the death, knowing that the Bulls needed five points to level the scores and seven to knock them out of the tournament.
The Bulls carried the ball through 24 phases. The WP defenders showed excellent composure, and no small measure of physicality, to repel wave after wave of attack. When the turnover was made, the Newlands faithful acknowledged the effort with a mighty roar.
The celebrations proved to be premature, though. De Wet was forced to leave the field with an injury, and Petersen was asked to play scrumhalf in his absence. One scrum was all that separated WP from another final appearance. All Petersen had to do was clear the ball.
Instead, Petersen fumbled it and the Bulls forced a turnover. The visitors sucked the WP defenders in before sending the ball wide to Dylan Sage.
Libbok missed the touchline conversion, though, to leave the scores locked at 32-32 at full-time. It was a big let-off for the hosts.
More drama was in the offing. Marais missed for the first time of the evening when he pushed a penalty attempt wide shortly before the break.
All the pressure was on WP heading into the final period of extra-time. A draw would see the Bulls – ahead four-two in the try-stakes – winning the game and advancing to the final.
Marais enjoyed an opportunity to redeem himself immediately after the break. This time, he thrashed the ball between the uprights and brought the modest crowd of 18,000 people to its feet.
Both sides failed to hold the ball in the final minutes of this marathon match. Somehow WP managed to deny the Bulls another scoring chance and emerge as winners after more than 100 minutes of rugby.
WP will have the chance to defend the Currie Cup title when they host the Sharks next Saturday. They last won consecutive titles in the 2000 and 2001 seasons.
The Bulls will watch the decider from their homes in Pretoria. It’s been nine long years since the great union last lifted the domestic trophy.
Western Province – Tries: SP Marais, Paul de Wet. Conversions: Marais (2). Penalties: Marais (7).
Blue Bulls – Tries: Ruan Steenkamp, Duncan Matthews, Manie Libbok, Dylan Sage. Conversions: Libbok (3). Penalties: Libbok (2).
Western Province – 15 Dillyn Leyds, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Ruhan Nel, 12 Dan Kriel, 11 SP Marais, 10 Damian Willemse, 9 Herschel Jantjies, 8 Juarno Augustus, 7 Ernst van Rhyn, 6 Kobus van Dyk, 5 JD Schickerling, 4 Chris van Zyl (c), 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Ali Vermaak.
Subs: 16 Chad Solomon, 17 Caylib Oosthuizen, 18 Michael Kumbirai, 19 Salmaan Moerat, 20 Jaco Coetzee, 21 Paul de Wet, 22 Josh Stander, 23 JJ Engelbrecht.
Blue Bulls – 15 Divan Rossouw, 14 Duncan Matthews, 13 Dylan Sage, 12 Johnny Kotze, 11 Jade Stighling, 10 Manie Libbok, 9 Ivan van Zyl, 8 Hanro Liebenberg (c), 7 Marco van Staden, 6 Ruan Steenkamp, 5 Eli Snyman, 4 Hendre Stassen, 3 Dayan van der Westhuizen, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Trevor Nyakane
Subs: 16 Edgar Marutlulle, 17 Frans van Wyk, 18 Conrad de Beer, 19 Ruan Nortje, 20 Nic de Jager, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Tinus de Beer, 23 Franco Naude.
Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images