PREVIEW: Currie Cup, Round 14
To add to the competitive nature of the round, spectators will see the return to action of several Springboks involved in the recently completed Rugby Championship.
The Sharks are guaranteed of hosting one of the semifinals next week after earning the top position on the log, while Western Province, the Free State Cheetahs, the Golden Lions and Blue Bulls will go head-to-head for the other home semifinal as the competition reaches the business end.
The Pumas are also still in the running to finish in the top four, although they will have to travel if they do manage that.
Western Province, who are currently in second place on the log, may need only a victory in Durban achieve this feat as they boast a one-point cushion and a comprehensive points' difference over the third-placed Free State Cheetahs, but this would require toppling log-leaders the Sharks in Durban. A defeat, in turn, could dash their semifinal aspirations completely.
The Golden Lions, meanwhile, will host the Free State Cheetahs in Johannesburg in the final pool match on Saturday, meaning these teams will know exactly what they need to do to finish in second place and in the top four respectively by the time they take to the field.
We take a look at all the Round 14 action!
Friday, October 13:
Blue Bulls v Pumas
(Loftus Versfeld. Pretoria – Kick-off: 19.00; 17.00 GMT)
The Blue Bulls and Pumas will kick off the round in Pretoria on Friday and both sides will be desperate for a victory to stay in contention for a play-off spot, as a defeat without a bonus point for either Western Province, the Free State Cheetahs or Golden Lions could see the winning team through to the top four.
The Mpumalanga side won only one of the last six fixtures between the teams, with that victory being a morale-boosting 51-15 victory in August, which is sure to inspire the visitors.
The Blue Bulls named an unchanged starting side for the clash, with the only new face among the replacements being Travis Ismaiel, who replaces the concussed Ulrich Beyers.
The Pumas, meanwhile, made five personnel changes, most of which were injury-enforced, which sees fullback Gerrit Smit, wing Selom Gavor, flanks Chris Cloete and Nardus van der Walt, and lock Jannie Stander earn starts.
"They Pumas are still in contention to make it into the semis and also have everything to play for. This will make for a very competitive match," said Blue Bulls coach John Mitchell.
Blue Bulls captain Burger Odendaal agrees.
"They gave us a good hiding when we played them earlier in the season, but that was the start of the turn-around for us. We are confident that we are progressing into a competitive squad and that we can put together the performance needed to stay in the competition. It will be nice if we can have a decent crowd to spur us on as well," Odendaal said.
2017: Pumas won 51-15, Nelspruit
2016: Blue Bulls won 41-14, Nelspruit
2015: Blue Bulls won 25-24, Nelspruit
2014: Blue Bulls won 37-6, Nelspruit
Prediction: The Pumas will fancy their chances after smashing the Bulls earlier in the tournament. However, the Bulls are at home this time and they have improved since then. The Bulls will win by 12 points.
Blue Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Duncan Matthews, 13 Burger Odendaal (captain), 12 John Jackson, 11 Johnny Kotze, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Ivan van Zyl, 8 Nic de Jager, 7 Tim Agaba, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 Aston Fortuin, 4 Ruben van Heerden, 3 Conraad van Vuuren, 2 Edgar Marutlulle, 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Replacements: 16 Johan Grobbelaar, 17 Matthys Basson, 18 Jano Venter, 19 Johannes Prinsloo, 20 Piet van Zyl, 21 Tony Jantjies, 22 Travis Ismaiel.
Pumas: 15 Gerrit Smit; 14 Selom Gavor, 13 Jerome Pretorius, 12 Hennie Skorbinski, 11 Ruwellyn Isbel; 10 Kobus Marais, 9 Stefan Ungerer; 8 Willie Engelbrecht, 7 Nardus van der Walt, 6 Chris Cloete, 5 Hugo Kloppers, 4 Jannie Stander, 3 Pieter Scholtz, 2 Marko Janse van Rensburg, 1 Khwezi Mona.
Replacements: 16 Frankie Herne, 17 De-Jay Terblanche, 18 Cameron Lindsay, 19 Hilton Lobberts, 20 Francois Kleinhans, 21 Reynier van Rooyen, 22 Gerrie Labuschagne.
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen
Assistant referees: Egon Seconds, Jaco Pretorius
TMO: Lesego Legoete
Saturday, October 14:
Sharks v Western Province
(Kings Park, Durban – Kick-off: 15.00; 13.00 GMT)
The action will continue at Kings Park on Saturday where the Sharks take on Western Province, and while the home team will be determined to build winning momentum after a bye last week, the visitors will give everything to book a home semifinal.
The KwaZulu-Natalians have had a solid season and are currently on a winning run of 10 matches, while the opposition comes off a disappointing defeat against the Golden Lions, which they will be determined to bounce back from to ensure that they finish in the top four and find their rhythm ahead of the knock-out stages.
The home team pipped Province 21-20 in Cape Town earlier in the season, meaning it could be a nail-biting clash.
The only change to the Sharks run-on team is the return of centre Lukhanyo Am in place of Tristan Blewett, while the bench has been boosted by Springboks Chiliboy Ralepelle and Jean-Luc du Preez.
Western Province welcomed back Springbok wing Dillyn Leyds and prop Wilco Louw to their starting line-up, with the only other change being the inclusion of flank Jaco Coetzee in the loose trio.
"The last thing you want to do is go into a semifinal having lost the last game, but for us, winning isn't all we’re focussing on, but rather, getting better from two weeks ago when we played the Lions," explains Sharks wing Odwa Ndungane.
"We want to make sure we keep improving. We already have a guaranteed home semifinal, so there isn't any pressure on us this weekend, but we want to go out and play well, to keep improving."
Meanwhile, Western Province captain Chris van Zyl says they that will be looking to put in a better performance against the Sharks this time.
"I think we have learned quite alot from that specific game here at Newlands," said Van Zyl.
"The one thing that was poor that day was our general game management – playing too much in our own half and also our kicking game lacked a bit there and they dominated us territorially."
2017: Sharks won 21-20, Cape Town
2016: Western Province won 34-27, Cape Town
2015: Western Province won 37-27, Durban
2014: Sharks won 28-20, Cape Town
Prediction: WP will be going all out to get an important victory, but the Sharks have been in good form all season and they are at home. The Sharks will win by five points or less.
Sharks: 15 Garth April, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Marius Louw, 11 Sibusiso Nkosi, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Michael Claassens, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jacques Vermeulen, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Ruan Botha (captain), 4 Tyler Paul, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Thomas du Toit.
Replacements: 16 Mahlatse Ralepelle, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Jean Droste, 19 Jean-Luc du Preez, 20 Louis Schreuder, 21 Tristan Blewett, 22 Jacobus van Wyk.
Western Province: 15 Damian Willemse, 14 Seabelo Senatla, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Ruhan Nel, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Cobus Wiese, 6 Jaco Coetzee, 5 John Schickerling, 4 Chris van Zyl (captain), 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Mbongeni Mbonambi, 1 Jacobus Janse van Rensburg.
Replacements: 16 Ramone Samuels, 17 Caylib Oosthuizen, 18 Jan de Klerk, 19 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 20 Justin Phillips, 21 Werner Kok, 22 EW Viljoen.
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant referees: Stuart Berry, Archie Sehlako
TMO: Willie Vos
Golden Lions v Free State Cheetahs
(Ellis Park, Johannesburg – Kick-off: 17.15; 15.15 GMT)
The grand finale to the pool stages between the Golden Lions and Free State Cheetahs in Johannesburg on Saturday is expected to be equally thrilling.
The Free Stater's have won the last three outings between the sides, which included a narrow 30-24 victory against the Gauteng outfit in August, but they lost the three matches prior to that, which will boost the home team's confidence.
The Golden Lions bolstered their team with Springboks as they recalled fullback Andries Coetzee, wing Courtnall Skosan and scrumhalf Ross Cronje among six personnel changes to the starting team, while hooker Malcolm Marx has been named on the bench following the conclusion of the Rugby Championship.
The Free State Cheetahs made wholesale changes to their side with Pro14 coach, Rory Duncan, resuming the head coaching duties as the European competition enjoy a two weeks break, which sees hooker Torsten van Jaarsveld lead the side, Springbok Raymond Rhule start at fullback and Springbok Sevens playmaker Rosko Specman on the wing.
Lions head coach Swys de Bruin believes the Pro14 would have had a positive effect on the Cheetahs heading into Saturday's clash.
"The fact that they [Cheetahs] played Pro14 counts in their favour," said De Bruin.
"They played different brands of rugby. I must say it is a very interesting that you can play in two competitions, Pro14 and Currie Cup. If they make the Currie Cup Final, they will have to back their next best again because then they are playing Pro14 again, so it is a very interesting."
Meanwhile, it is all systems go for the current Currie Cup Champions in defending the title.
"This is an extremely important game for the Free State Cheetahs. We will be pushing as hard as we can to get results," said Duncan.
Captain Torsten van Jaarsveld added: "We aim to perform to the standard that we played in Pro14."
2017: Free State Cheetahs won 30-24, Bloemfontein
2016: Free State Cheetahs won 55-17, Bloemfontein (semifinal)
2016: Free State Cheetahs won 37-29, Bloemfontein
2015: Golden Lions won 43-33, Johannesburg
Prediction: The Golden Lions have a number of Springboks back and they will be tough to beat. However, the Cheetahs players have been playing tough Pro14 matches and they had to lift their game. The Cheetahs will win this by seven points or less.
Golden Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 13 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Jaco van der Walt, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Albertus Smith, 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Len Massyn, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Replacements: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Rhyno Herbst, 19 Robert Kruger/Hacjivah Dayimani, 20 Marco Jansen van Vuren, 21 Ashlon Davids, 22 Sylvian Mahuza.
Free State Cheetahs: 15 Raymond Rhule, 14 Rosko Specman, 13 Nico Lee, 12 William Small-Smith, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Ernst Stapelberg, 9 Tian Meyer, 8 Teboho Mohoje, 7 Henco Venter, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Justin Basson, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld (captain), 1 Charles Marais.
Replacements: 16 Retshegofaditswe Nche, 17 Jacques du Toit, 18 Rynier Bernardo, 19 Junior Pokomela, 20 Shaun Venter, 21 Ali Mgijima, 22 Luther Obi.
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge
Assistant referees: AJ Jacobs, Stephan Geldenhuys
TMO: Johan Greeff