Preview: Currie Cup, Round One
South Africa's appetite for Currie Cup rugby has not diminished at all, despite the overload of international and domestic rugby.
It is with much anticipation that we approach the new-look Currie Cup competition – an abbreviated, strength-versus-strength version that is likely to produce as much passion as this historic competition has done for more than a century.
Despite the absence of 30-odd Springboks, along with a number of frontline players who have headed abroad in recent months, South Africa's premier domestic competition looks set to roll out another batch of quality young players ready to announce themselves as the future of the game in this country.
Sharks coach John Plumtree may as well have spoken for all the coaches when he said the absence of frontline players will not detract from the six-team, 10-week tournament.
"It is a shorter competition," Plumtree said this week, adding: "But then we've been understrength [without a host of Boks] previously.
"[In the past] we've had workouts against [smaller] teams like the Pumas or Leopards, so it might be a bit tougher," he said of the new format.
"Sides like the Lions and Cheetahs don't get as affected as much with Springbok call-ups – so it will be short, but intense and tough."
Jan de Koning looks at all the Round One matches!
Friday, August 10
Blue Bulls v Griquas
(Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria – Kick-off: 19.10; 17.10 GMT)
The Blue Bulls, one of the teams most affected by national call-ups, will field only a handful of regulars from their Super Rugby side.
Bulls coach Pine Pienaar admitted Griquas could be the biggest banana skin of the competition this year, which means the handful of seasoned players will be crucial to the Pretoria outfit's cause – men like Springboks Akona Ndungane and captain Dewald Potgieter, along with lock Wilhelm Steenkamp and hooker Willie Wepener.
For a 'smaller' union Griquas will be the more settled, and seasoned, of the two teams.
Ironically the visitors from Kimberley will rely on the wisdom of several former Bulls – midfielders JP Nel and Stephan Watermeyer, wing Rocco Jansen and flyhalf Francois Brummer will all have a point to prove.
But the biggest threat may well be further back – fullback Willie le Roux, a superstar for the Cheetahs in Super Rugby, after having signed with Griquas from the Boland Cavaliers this year.
Griquas head coach Pote Human made no secret of his team's desire to advance to the play-offs this year.
"We have worked hard on our conditioning and skills in the last couple of months," Human said, adding that they are "excited" by the challenge of taking on the Bulls at Loftus.
The Kimberley-based side progressed to the Final of the Vodacom Cup earlier this year and were unfortunate to be edged by an injury-time try from Western Province.
"We are looking to the senior players in the team to provide much-needed experience," Human said.
"It won't be easy at Loftus. A lot of people are making too much of the Bulls being without their Springboks, but we aren't under any illusions."
His Bulls counterpart returned the compliments, suggesting that Griquas may well be the most settled team at the start of the competition.
"To start against a team like Griquas, who have been together for about seven months, is really tough," Pienaar told this website.
"They got only about three players back [from Super Rugby with the Cheetahs]," he said, adding: "Griquas, under the guidance of [coach] Pote [Human] did exceptionally well in the Vodacom Cup.
"They should have won in the Final [against Western Province] and let it slip in the last minute.
"We know how tough they are and last year, in Kimberley, they prevented us from getting to the semifinals. This year we have already lost to them twice in the Vodacom Cup – we know it will be very tough at Loftus on Friday."
Prediction: Despite the contrasting natures of their respective build-ups – the Bulls fielding an untested combination against a settled Griquas outfit – most bookmakers still give Griquas a 10-point start. It is surprising, as the men from Kimberley have an impressive line-up and with handful of players returning from Super Rugby they have a far more balanced look. Then again, the Bulls showed in Super Rugby this year they do have incredible depth and while they may lack experience, there are oodles of talent in the team that will run out at Loftus. It will be a closely-contested cracker, but the homeground advantage could tilt it in favour of the Bulls. The Blue Bulls by five points or less.
Blue Bulls: 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 Ulrich Beyers, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Clayton Blommetjies, 10 Louis Fouché, 9 Ruan Snyman, 8 Dewald Potgieter (captain), 7 Arno Botha, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Cornell Hess, 4 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 3 Frik Kirsten, 2 Willie Wepener, 1 Dawie Steyn.
Replacements: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Werner Kruger, 18 Grant Hattingh, 19 CJ Stander, 20 Lohan Jacobs, 21 Lionel Cronjé, 22 Jan Serfontein.
Griquas: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Luzuko Vulindlu, 13 JP Nel, 12 Stephan Watermeyer, 11 Rocco Janse, 10 Francois Brummer, 9 Jacques Coetzee, 8 Leon Karemaker, 7 Jonathan Adendorff, 6 Justin Downey, 5 Martin Muller, 4 Ligtoring Landman, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Rayno Barnes, 1 Stef Roberts.
Replacements: 16 Matthew Dobson, 17 Hanru van Niekerk, 18 Frikkie Spies, 19 Jaco Nepgen, 20 Marnus Hugo, 21 Marnitz Boshoff, 22 Wilmaure Louw.
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert, Attie Buitendag
TMO: Shaun Veldsman
Saturday, August 11
Golden Lions v Free State Cheetahs
(Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg – Kick-off: 17.05; 15.05 GMT)
Against all odds. No, that was not their Currie Cup win last year, this is what the Lions will face as they open the defence of their Currie Cup crown.
Most pundits will suggest the Lions go into their clash with the Free State Cheetahs with a settled side.
But there is nothing settled about the men from Johannesburg. In the last few months they have suspended their head coach, axed two of his assistants (all three are New Zealanders), they have changed their captain, they are battling SARU for the right to play Super Rugby next year and are involved in an arbitration case against their Super Rugby partners, the Pumas and Leopards.
Despite all this the Cheetahs are circumspect as they head north to take on a team embroiled in controversy.
Cheetahs backline coach Hawies Fourie has a simple explanation for the cautious approach.
"They do have a very strong team … close to their Super Rugby team," he said, adding that the Lions won the Currie Cup last year with a very similar line-up.
The Lions' stand-in coach, Johan Ackermann, feels they do have one advantage.
"Yes, it will be a big test for us, but we are confident of a good start – especially since we are at home," Ackermann told this website.
Both teams favour an expansive game and defence is not always at a premium.
However, the abbreviated nature of the competition means the margin for error has become a lot smaller. It will not be as easy to make up lost ground as was the case in recent years.
Fourie said that while the Cheetahs would like to refine their attack, fix up a few small things, they will definitely have to step up on defence.
"You won't win this competition with the number of tries we concede," he said, adding: "A major focus point for us will be to defend better and concede fewer tries in the Currie Cup."
The Cheetahs have not just put a premium on defence, but also to win away games.
"All teams focus on winning all their home games," Fourie said, adding: "But if you want to finish on top of the standings you will have to win at least three or four of your away games as well.
"You can't just focus on your home games, you have to ensure you also win some away games."
Prediction: This may well be the most entertaining game of the weekend – a try-feast. The key to this game is at halfback – the Lions have in Butch James a World Cup-winner, a proven match winner. However, he has not been near his best this year. If he finds some kind of form he could make life decidedly unpleasant for the Cheetahs. The visitors' ace is scrumhalf Piet van Zyl, a real find this year. The Lions may well have an edge in the set pieces and if they control that, their free-running game could prove too much for the visitors. The Lions to win by about 10 points.
Golden Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 JR Esterhuizen, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Waylon Murray, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Butch James, 9 Michael Bondesio, 8 Derick Minnie, 7 Josh Strauss, 6 Cobus Grobbelaar, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Hendrik Roodt, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg (captain).
Replacements: 16 Francois du Toit, 17 CJ van der Linde, 18 Willie Britz, 19 Warren Whiteley, 20 Ross Cronje, 21 Guy Cronje, 22 Ruan Combrinck.
Free State Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Nico Scheepers, 13 Robert Ebersohn (captain), 12 Andries Strauss, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Riaan Smit, 9 Pieter van Zyl, 8 Davon Raubenheimer, 7 Pieter Labuschagné, 6 Johannes Prinsloo, 5 Izak van der Westhuizen, 4 Waltie Vermeulen, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Hercu Liebenberg, 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Replacements: 16 Elandre Huggett, 17 Schalk van der Merwe, 18 Francois Uys, 19 Lucas Floors, 20 Sarel Pretorius, 21 Sias Ebersohn, 22 Phillip Snyman.
Referee: Marius Jonker
Assistant referees: Joey Salmans, Cobus Wessels
Western Province v Sharks
(Newlands, Cape Town – Kick-off: 19.10; 17.10 GMT)
It was initially billed as a "grudge" match, following the Sharks' impressive win over the Stormers in the Super Rugby semifinal at the same venue two weeks ago.
However, once the line-ups were revealed this week you realised why so many of the teams keep speaking of using the competition to "experiment" for the future.
The Sharks have been decimated by national call-ups and injuries – losing 14 players that featured in that semifinal.
Western Province may only have six players on Bok duty, but a host of injuries mean they are also featuring a virtual second-string selection.
Still, the men from Cape Town have a hunger and desire to end a decade-long drought in the country's premier domestic competition.
"The way we view the Currie Cup … first of all, we see it as a massively important competition for us," WP assistant coach Robbie Fleck said.
"It is an opportunity for us to go out there and perform at our best and fight for a trophy that has been missing for some time [since 2001].
"Traditionally it is a very important competition for Western Province – not just for the union, the coaches and the players, but also the fans."
There is no doubt in the modern era it has become the norm for the bigger teams – the Super Rugby franchises – to use the Currie Cup as an important stepping stone for the next year.
Fleck acknowledged as much: "For us it is about unearthing young talent and breeding that second tier of players, bringing them through the ranks.
"We think we did that successfully last year when we unearthed the likes of Siya Kolisi, Frans Malherbe and Steven Kitshoff. I is an opportunity for these guys to play at a highly competitive level and groom them for Super Rugby."
Fleck pointed to the meteoric rise of new Springbok Siya Kolisi, who made his debut in 2011 and a year later is set to play on the international stage.
"It is also an opportunity for us as coaching staff to work on this from Super Rugby that were good and things that were poor," Fleck said, adding: "We look at things we can work on and things we can try.
"In that sense we use the Currie Cup to experiment, but first and foremost it is about the traditions and trying to win a Currie Cup."
Sharks coach John Plumtree also spoke of the experimental nature of the competition.
"The nice thing about the Currie Cup is that you get to see the next tier of talent," Plumtree said.
"There will be a mixture of new and old faces in the different teams and I guess Province will be strong, they have a lot of depth. Their age grade rugby is also very strong, so they have potentially a slightly bigger pool to pick from than us.
"We've done alright in this competition without our Springboks in the past, I'm not expecting anything less."
Prediction: Both teams may have been depleted through Bok call-ups and injuries, but the amount of talent on display and the nature of the competition means the Newlands faithful can expect an entertaining affair. The Sharks do look a bit more settled, and – on paper at least – a bit more dynamic. The big question is how Riaan Viljoen will perform at flyhalf. His booming boot could be the difference in what will otherwise be a very close affair. The Sharks to win by about seven points.
Western Province: 15 Joe Pietersen, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 JP du Plessis, 12 Marcel Brache, 11 Gio Aplon, 10 Burton Francis, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Jebb Sinclair, 7 Tyrone Holmes, 6 Deon Fourie (captain), 5 De Kock Steenkamp, 4 Don Armand, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Tiaan Liebenberg, 1 Deon Carstens.
Replacements: 16 Siyabonga Ntubeni, 17 Brok Harris, 18 Wilhelm van der Sluys, 19 Yaya Hartzenberg, 20 Louis Schreuder, 21 Gary van Aswegen, 22 Damian de Allende.
Sharks: 15 Gouws Prinsloo, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 S'bura Sithole, 10 Riaan Viljoen, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Tera Mtembu, 7 Jean Deysel (captain), 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Jandré Marais, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Craig Burden, 1 Dale Chadwick.
Replacements: 16 Monde Hadebe, 17 Julian Redelinghuys, 18 Peet Marais, 19 Francois Kleinhans, 20 Conrad Hoffmann, 21 Marius Joubert, 22 Rosko Specman.
Referee: Lourens van der Merwe
Assistant referees: Jason Jaftha, Marc van Zyl
TMO: JC Fortuin