by Len Kaplan
While the Springboks were away on Rugby Championship duty, the Currie Cup competition managed for the most part to maintain high standards of performance and to draw the traditional interest and passion and controversy.
With the return of the Boks to provincial action this past weekend, the Currie Cup is back in full flight and the semi-finals this Saturday and final the following Saturday promise an exciting climax to a tightly contested competition.
It would come as a surprise if Western Province – unbeaten through the 10-game league phase – were not to beat the Golden Lions at Newlands and the Sharks were not to beat the Free State Cheetahs in Durban in the semi-finals, but you wouldn’t bet the family farm on either result, would you?
We’re in for a fascinating semi-final afternoon, but the expectation for 26 October would be for Western Province to be hosting their first Currie Cup final at Newlands since beating the Sharks there in 2001.
The Springbok players can make a huge difference, as Duane Vermeulen showed us abundantly clearly. Coaches have some tough selections to make, none more so than Allister Coetzee at Western Province, with the return of Eben Etsebeth, Duane Vermeulen, Siya Kolisi, Jean de Villiers and Juan de Jongh from Springbok duty and of Schalk Burger and Frans Malherbe from injury, to compete for selection with players who have taken his team on their unbeaten Currie Cup run. Some of these “stand-in” players have been consistently outstanding.
It’s not often that selection of provincial teams draws such fervent debate among fans. We have an absorbing week ahead of us even before the players take the field for the semi-finals.
5 things we learned from the Currie Cup this weekend
• The Pumas deserve commendation for their 16 out of 16 unbeaten Currie Cup First Division season and impressive win over EP Kings in the final. Jimmy Stonehouse has yet again done an excellent job as coach. Coenie van Wyk and Stefan Watermeyer deserve Super Rugby contracts; they have the skills to add value to any of the five Super squads.
• The value that Willie Britz adds to the Golden Lions performance is such that he deserves more than the miserly nine minutes he was given against Griquas. The impact he makes is worthy of far more game-time.
• The Bulls again paid the price for selecting three loose forwards who are big, strong ball-carriers, but none of whom are effective at playing towards the ball as a quick, skilful openside flank.
• The Free State Cheetahs midfield duo, Robert Ebersohn and Johann Sadie, should be on Heyneke Meyer’s radar. One wonders how they would have fared at Test level if they had been granted the opportunities that the Blue Bulls centre pair, Jan Serfontein and JJ Engelbrecht, have been given.
• Frans Malherbe’s return from injury gives the Springboks the back-up tighthead prop they need for the November tour. He is a natural tighthead, which Coenie Oosthuizen is not. Malherbe’s fellow 22-year old, hooker Scarra Ntubeni, and the 21 year old loosehead Steven Kitshoff were also superb against the Sharks, while Pat Cilliers showed he is also a better Bok back-up bet than Oosthuizen.
Player of the Week:
Some of the Springboks returning from the rugby Championship looked weary and in need of rest before their November tour, but Duane Vermeulen showed no such physical or mental fatigue. He was brilliant on attack and defence and in stealing vital ball for Western Province and the major contributor to their wins over the Sharks.
Forward of the Week:
Other than Vermeulen, the two stand-out forwards were Adriaan Strauss for the Cheetahs and Steven Kitshoff for Western Province. Kitshoff edges it by virtue of his strong, technically astute scrummaging against Jannie du Plessis and hugely effective contribution away from the set pieces too.
Back of the Week:
Coenie van Wyk was the star of the First Division final, but no back showed more skill or made a greater contribution to his team’s victory than Cheetahs inside centre Robert Ebersohn.
Sub of the Week:
Willie Britz made wonderful impact for the Lions in an all too brief cameo appearance. Keegan Daniel and Pat Lambie lifted the Sharks performance when they came on. But the substitute of the week must be Schalk Burger, who played a full half hour – a veritable miracle if one considers how badly injured and then how ill he was during his 18 months away from the game.
Try of the Week:
Just into the 78th minute of the Free State Cheetahs vs Blue Bulls game, the Cheetahs lead 17-7. The Bulls win a ruck nine metres into the Cheetahs half. A long pass goes awry and Sarel Pretorius, now playing on the right wing for the Cheetahs, dribbles ahead, boots the ball forward again, and it’s a race between Bok hooker Adriaan Strauss of the Cheetahs and Bok centre JJ Engelbrecht of the Bulls. Strauss is first to the ball and 30 metres from the goal-line puts foot to ball. The race between the hooker and the centre is tight, but it is the hooker who wins, gathers the ball, and scores to seal a 22-7 win for the Cheetahs.
Quotes of the Week:
“We let it slip through our fingers. But we’re not down in the dumps at all; there’s still a lot to play for. We’re looking forward to the semi-final and potentially playing Province again in the final.”
– Sharks coach Brad Macleod-Henderson
“We wanted to badly go through this competition unbeaten and that’s what we achieved tonight and with it we also managed to end top of the log. [But] I think it will be foolish to talk about winning the final if you haven’t gone through the semis. The big thing for us is to now keep the feet on the ground.”
– Western Province coach Allister Coetzee