Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Heat firmly on WP, Bulls
Johannesburg - The two teams who have won the Absa Currie Cup the most in the history of South Africa's long-running domestic competition will be the ones under the most pressure when the second round of fixtures in the 2011 edition is played this weekend.
Both Western Province and the Blue Bulls have been robbed of the bulk of their usual squad by Springbok call-ups and a combination of other factors, but the fans of the two respected unions will still be demanding success after both teams experienced hiccups in the opening round.
The Bulls were comprehensively outplayed by the Sharks in Durban, while WP were held to a draw by Griquas. Considering how weakened WP are that result would not have been a surprise to everyone, but at Newlands they should expect to beat Griquas regardless of how many players are missing.
Province coach Allister Coetzee did make a good point this week when he said the Currie Cup this year should be more about readying players for next year's Super Rugby than about winning the trophy. With Super Rugby now extending over so many months and demanding so much of the participants there is no longer any lingering question about which is the more important competition.
However Coetzee will also know that the Stormers' chances next year will be best served by a winning environment at Province over the next few months, so his side can't afford to slip up again when they play the Platinum Leopards in Potchefstroom on Friday night. WP have lost Gary van Aswegen to injury and will be fielding Demetri Catrakilis, the Varsity Cup-winning UCT flyhalf, in a Currie Cup starting lineup for the first time.
Although the Leopards lost heavily to the Cheetahs last week, Coetzee has noted an improvement in the Leopards, and given the way his side has struggled in first phase just recently, it is unsurprising that he is a bit wary.
"I don't know where they get them from but the Leopards seem to always have big locks and they have a big pack generally," said Coetzee.
Of the two fierce rivals, who will clash at Newlands the following week, it is the Bulls who have the tougher ask this weekend. They play the Fre State Cheetahs, and though they have home ground advantage, that means less to them against these opponents in this competition than it did in the past and it would in Super Rugby.
In the under-strength domestic season, the Cheetahs are formidable opponents anywhere, and there recent record against the Bulls is a good one, with their last defeat to them in the Currie Cup coming in the 2009 final, when the Bulls were at full strength.
So it's a tough ask for the under-pressure Bulls, and their coach Pine Pienaar knows they have to lift their performance significantly from last week.
"To beat Free State will require a great effort from us and we will have no choice but to respond to the pressure that we face. No team can afford to lose a home match in this competition," said Pienaar.
With basically their entire first choice pack out, the Bulls are in the unusual situation of being up against it in precisely the area where usually they are strong.
Realistically the Cheetahs and the Golden Lions, as the Super Rugby teams that have lost the fewest players, should be favoured to play in the final this year, as they did in the last World Cup year in 2007. But one top side that might cause us to rethink that is the Sharks, who were impressive in their Durban opener and who, because of the recruitment of Frederic Michalak and Marius Joubert from France, boast a useful and experienced backline.
They shouldn't have too much trouble seeing off the challenge of the Pumas in Nelspruit on Friday night, but for the Lions it is going to be far tougher as they go to Kimberley to play against Griquas on Saturday afternoon. The Lions battled more than anticipated against the Pumas last week and Griquas start as marginal favourites for this game.