What we’ve learned

Five lessons from the Currie Cup this past weekend, according to CRAIG LEWIS.

Cheetahs on course for historic title
Saturday’s semi-final in Bloemfontein was expected to be a closely fought affair. Only eight points separated the sides when they met earlier in the season, and while the Lions have not been at their best this season, they still boasted plenty of attacking threats. The undefeated Cheetahs came into the clash on an eight-match winning streak, but they left their best for this playoff performance. The Free State side dominated the collisions, demonstrated immense physicality on defence and remained clinical on attack. In the end, the Cheetahs scored six tries to three and came away with a 55-17 win that sees them reach their first final since 2009. With home-ground advantage and plenty of momentum and confidence on their side, they look certain to clinch a first title since 2007.

Petersen, Ulengo brimming with potential
What has become abundantly apparent this year is that there is a dearth of locally based wingers who are ready to take the step up to Test level. For the Springboks’ final Test of the year, an injury to Bryan Habana very nearly meant Willie le Roux had to fill in on the wing, while for most of the Rugby Championship, Francois Hougaard had to revert to his less preferred position out wide. With Habana coming towards the end of his career, and someone such as JP Pietersen plying his trade abroad, South African rugby is calling out for greater depth among their wings. Petersen has been a player that many have identified as a potential future star, and on Saturday he returned from injury to produce a Man of the Match performance that inspired the Cheetahs to victory. Prodigiously talented Jamba Ulengo also looked good for the Bulls in their semi-final victory, and is another player who the Boks should be keeping a close eye on.

Bulls have to cut down error rate
There’s no doubt that the Bulls cashed in on their get-out-of-jail free card this past Saturday, with a late try to Ivan van Zyl enabling them to sneak past Western Province into the final. While it was ultimately a deserved victory, and saw the Bulls progress to the title decider as expected, they will know that they were often their own worst enemy at Loftus. Although it was encouraging to see them maintain an ambitious brand of rugby, poor decision-making and a high error rate (they committed seven handling errors) allowed Province to remain in the contest and very nearly steal a victory. However, the Bulls will be fully aware that only a vastly improved all-round performance would give them any hope of competing against the high-flying Cheetahs in the Currie Cup decider.

Defence wins playoff matches
In this year’s Super Rugby final, the Hurricanes overcame the Lions based largely on an immense defensive effort that rattled the Johannesburg-based side and ultimately limited them to a measly three points. It was a winning formula for playoff rugby, and the Lions were once again on the receiving end of this lesson on Saturday. The Cheetahs were abrasive on defence and impressed with accurate line speed, complemented by strong first-time tackling, which prevented the Lions from getting their natural attacking game going. Again, it was a reminder for the Lions that defence is what so often wins knockout matches, and this is an area of their game that the Lions must look to evolve for next year.

Currie Cup still fighting for prominence
In the lead-up to Saturday’s semi-final at Loftus, the Bulls took the unusual step of imploring the media to try and promote ticket sales to the public, with real concerns emerging around the prospect of a mostly empty stadium. There were similar worries in Bloemfontein, and in the end two relatively sparse crowds turned up for the ‘big’ knockout clashes. It surely served as an indication of the general public negativity towards the state of SA rugby at the moment, while again providing a reminder of how the Currie Cup continues to battle for prominence in a saturated rugby season. There is no doubt that serious consideration needs to be given to ways that the Currie Cup can be restored to its former glory in the face of waning public interest.

Photo: Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images

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Craig Lewis