It’s WP’s to lose from here
Duane Vermeulen (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Formula One provides enough evidence at times that you aren’t guaranteed victory from pole position ... but Western Province will be hard to stop now in their quest for retention of the Currie Cup title.
Bosses at Newlands will already be eagerly doing some revenue sums, you can be sure, over the prospect of successive knockout matches on the next two Saturdays - including a possible first domestic final at the grand old venue since 2001, when WP came from a fair way behind to beat the Sharks 29-24.
Given the strong possibility that they will tackle their long-time coastal rivals again in the October 26 showpiece, Province may be contemplating a good little omen: the last time they retained the Currie Cup had also come after beating the Sharks in Durban (25-15 in the 2000 final) and then going on to knock over the same foes a year later on more familiar Cape terrain.
The blue-and-white-stripes are defending champions for the very reason that they defeated the Sharks 25-18 away in last year’s final, and as likely bookies’ favourites now are bidding to become the first team to successfully defend the title since the period between 2005 and 2007.
That was when the Cheetahs, Saturday’s semis opponents for the Sharks at Kings Park, experienced the most productive period in their domestic history, winning the trophy outright twice (2005 and 2007) and sharing the honours with the Blue Bulls in between, in 2006.
Since then there have only been once-off victors each time.
Certainly WP will have banked strong psychological confidence from beating the Sharks in rain-lashed Durban on the last day of round-robin activity this year - initial fears that they would find the home-town, all-Springbok front row too hot to handle in the scrums proved unfounded as Province instead governed this particularly influential phase given the grim conditions.
When semis opponents the Lions visit Newlands on Saturday (14:30 kick-off), it will be armed with their admirable team spirit and boundless enthusiasm, but playing second fiddle on paper for proven class and weight of Springboks in the ranks.
What would doubtless have pleased the WP brains trust was downing the Sharks even with their most seasoned back and forward respectively, Jean de Villiers and Schalk Burger, starting the match among the substitutes.
Both these men will hardly be lacking the will to lift the Currie Cup, given that they have not yet tasted this phenomenon despite so many years of yeoman service to the franchise.
De Villiers only began his first-class career in 2001, but versatile Braam van Straaten was the inside centre for WP in that year’s showpiece (he scored 24 of the 29 points), with Chris Rossouw operating at flyhalf.
Burger played his first Province match in 2003, and both players missed last season’s final conquest through injury.
De Villiers seems dead certain to be back as a starting player against the Lions at the weekend, although Burger’s claims to that status are a bit less clear-cut: fast clawing his way back to best personal form after his formidable absence, he nevertheless has to somehow unseat one of the existing loose trio - captain Deon Fourie, Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen - and may stay a reserve, at least for the semi.
Also in WP’s favour is that at a time of the year when a likelier trend is for players to cry off with often fatigue-related injury, promising young tighthead Frans Malherbe is another quality customer instead champing at the bit for a start but being blocked by the in-form, hard-grafting Pat Cilliers.
The Sharks v Cheetahs later semi-final on Saturday (17:00) looks potentially the most competitive of the two, as Province ought to see off the Lions with a bit of daylight to spare if they are anywhere near their best.
Naka Drotske’s charges have been tough nuts to crack all year, including reaching the playoffs phase of Super Rugby against expectation - they are capable of beating any other South African team anywhere on a really good day.
Although the Sharks will be favourites at home, and have beaten these opponents both in Durban (50-26) and Bloemfontein (18-15) in the round-robin phase, the Cheetahs can take great heart, perhaps, from their 2013 Super Rugby triumph at Kings Park - 12-6 on April 20.
On another seriously wet day on the KwaZulu-Natal coast, Willie le Roux’s late intercept try made the crucial difference then, although of course the slippery Springbok back-three player is not contracted to the Cheetahs at Currie Cup level.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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