The tempo of the Absa Currie Cup Premier Division is expected to rise this weekend as the competition strikes the halfway mark and the teams to try to break away from the logjam at the top of the table.
As things stand only six points separates log-leaders Western Province and the fifth-placed Toyota Free State Cheetahs with six pool rounds remaining including this weekend, meaning the competition could come down to the wire.
In the only match on Friday the unbeaten DHL Western Province will meet the winless EP Kings at DHL Western Province in a match they will target for a bonus point victory.
On Saturday the Toyota Free State Cheetahs take on the Steval Pumas in Bloemfontein, the Cell C Sharks host GWK Griquas in Durban and the Vodacom Blue Bulls go up against the Xerox Golden Lions in Pretoria.
In Cape Town DHL Western Province will back themselves to register their fifth successive victory as the EP Kings have lacked the big match temperament to push through for wins despite coming close against the Vodacom Blue Bulls and Xerox Golden Lions. The visitors, however, will have to tighten up their defence as they have leaked 22 tries in four matches, something they cannot afford against a side loaded playmakers and physical forwards. This clash will mark only the fifth match between the teams since 1997.
The Toyota Free State Cheetahs, meanwhile, will be wary of the Steval Pumas in Bloemfontein following the visitors’ impressive run this season in which they have registered three victories in four matches. This included a shock 32-22 victory against defending Absa Currie Cup champions, the Cell C Sharks, last week. Adding to the Nelspruit team’s desire to continue their winning momentum on Saturday, flank Renaldo Bothma will celebrate his 50th cap, while replacement lock Marius Coetzer will play his 80th match. The Free State team, however, will draw comfort from the fact that the Steval Pumas only beat them by seven points in August, while they will also be determined to register a victory to improve their log position. These factors could result in a nail-biting clash.
In Durban the Cell C Sharks will have a point to prove against GWK Griquas after suffering their first defeat of the season against the Steval Pumas last week. However, they will be playing against a team fighting for survival in the competition after failing to win a single match in the opening four rounds. While the Sharks will enter the clash as overwhelming favourites, they should be careful about writing off GWK Griquas as the Kimberley side have won four of the last nine matches between the teams.
The Gauteng derby between the Vodacom Blue Bulls and Xerox Golden Lions at Loftus Versfeld could also deliver an entertaining battle. On form the Johannesburg team will be labelled the favourites, but the Vodacom Blue Bulls, who have their backs against the wall, put up a brave fight last week against the log-leaders DHL Western Province and will be determined to do the same this week. Should the Pretoria team succeed in reaching a turning point in their disappointing season, they could still force their way into contention for a semifinal spot, which will serve as a strong driving force. Should the Xerox Golden Lions win the clash, it will mark their fourth back-to-back victory against the Pretoria side in the competition.
DHL Western Province coach Allister Coetzee made four changes to the team that defeated the Vodacom Blue Bulls, with wing Pat Howard replacing the injured Seabelo Senatla, while scrumhalf Louis Schreuder makes a welcome return from a long injury layoff in place of Nic Groom. Lock Ruan Botha and prop Brok Harris also earn starts in rotational switches. EP Kings coach Carlos Spencer, meanwhile, made five changes to his team with the most significant being the inclusion of centre Dwayne Jenner, who will make his Absa Currie Cup debut alongside Tim Whitehead who returns from injury. Prop Lizo Gqoboka, meanwhile, reclaims his place in the starting team. In total eight players in Spencer’s match-22 are SARU Academy players, including Gqoboka.
Steval Pumas coach Jimmy Stonehouse proved his faith in the team that defeated the Cell C Sharks, with the only change to his squad being on the bench where former Leopards back Hennie Skorbinski will make his Pumas debut in place of Coenie van Wyk. His Toyota Free State Cheetahs counterpart Rory Duncan also opted for continuity in selection by making only two changes to the starting team with centre JP du Plessis earning his first start, while flyhalf Pieter-Steyn de Wet replaces Willie du Plessis.
Cell C Sharks coach Brad McLeod-Henderson made several changes to his starting team, which sees props Thomas du Toit and Lourens Adriaanse, locks Stephan Lewies and Wiehan Hay and fullback Jaco van Tonder being handed starts. Regular lock Etienne Oosthuizen, meanwhile, moves to flank. In the GWK Griquas camp coach Hawies Fourie named former Golden Lions stalwart Doppies la Grange in his starting team, while Francois Brummer will start at flyhalf and Gouws Prinsloo returns from injury to take up his place at fullback.
In Pretoria Vodacom Blue Bulls coach Frans Ludeke named a new-look backline for their clash against the Xerox Golden Lions with choice flyhalf Jacques-Louis Potgieter back from injury and Springbok Sevens player Jamba Ulengo set to make his debut on the wing. Ulrich Beyers will start at fullback, Springbok JJ Engelbrecht at centre and Rudy Paige at scrumhalf. Up front hooker Bongi Mbonambi has also been included the starting team. Xerox Golden Lions coach Johan Ackermann has recalled flyhalf Jaco van der Walt following an injury, which resulted in Andries Coetzee moving to fullback and Ruan Combrinck to the left wing. In the pack, meanwhile, Derick Minnie has been included at No8 and will take over the captaincy. Springbok Sevens player Mark Richards could make his debut after being included on the bench.
Absa Currie Cup Premier Division fixtures:
DHL Western Province vs EP Kings
Venue: DHL Newlands, Cape Town
Date: Friday, 5 September
Referee: Stuart Berry
Assistant Referees: Quinton Immelman and Marc van Zyl
TMO: Shaun Veldsman
Toyota Free State Cheetahs vs Steval Pumas
Venue: Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
Date: Saturday, 6 September
Referee: Craig Joubert
Assistant Referees: Gerrie de Bruin and Jaco Kotze
TMO: JJ Wagner
Cell C Sharks vs GWK Griquas
Venue: Growthpoint Kings Park, Durban
Date: Saturday, 6 September
Referee: Lourens van der Merwe
Assistant Referees: Jaco van Heerden and Francois de Bruin
TMO: Deon van Blommestein
Vodacom Blue Bulls vs Xerox Golden Lions
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Date: Saturday, 6 September
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen
Assistant Referees: Jaco Pretorius and Cobus Wessels
TMO: Willie Vos