Cape Town - Memories in the Cape are long enough to recall what happened a year ago, so Western Province are happy to accept underdog status ahead of Saturday’s Currie Cup semi-final showdown with the Blue Bulls.
Last season WP went to Loftus for the 2015 semi-final with the critics probably giving them a better chance of winning than is the case this time. Back then Province had at least responded to their heavy first round defeat in Pretoria by beating the Bulls quite well at Newlands. This year, with the competition played over just one round, there hasn’t been a return match since Chris van Zyl’s team were comprehensively outplayed in the first match of the domestic season.
And arguably, apart from the good win over Griquas a few weeks ago and the home victory over the Sharks, WP have produced performances during the regular season that have been inferior to what they managed to put together once they had recovered from their poor start in 2015. Indeed, WP were fortunate to scrape through to the play-offs in the end as they had to rely on a late penalty to beat the Boland Cavaliers in their last game.
That close result was an example of WP struggling with form, and although they have some Springboks and a couple of players coming back from injury this week, there is good reason to believe that the Bulls should be resounding favourites to make their first Currie Cup final since 2009. That though means there is less pressure on WP, and their coach John Dobson appears to welcome that.
“I’ve seen the odds. We have been written off everywhere for this games, to there’s really no pressure on us,” said Dobson.
“Nobody expects us to win. They are playing in front of their home crowd, they are playing with the favourites tag. They are playing to sort of avenge last year’s shock defeat, so there’s a lot of pressure on them to win.”
Dobson said that his team were expecting the Bulls to go back to their old traditional approach, meaning reverting to the strong focus on physical dominance, rather than employ their new more attacking game in a play-off game.
“We know where we have fallen short this season. We know that the high ball is an issue. And it is only logical, given the size of that team and the fact that they’re basically a Super Rugby pack of forwards, that they’re going to try to beat us physically. So we’re expecting a sort of traditional Bulls onslaught. It is going to rain contestable kicks. So we are working on fronting that onslaught.
“We have worked on the skill of catching and then we worked on how we are going to play off that. So that has been our major focus this week. We know it is going to rain (high kicks).”
However, Dobson talking up the opposition and talking down his own team’s chances undoubtedly serves the purpose of paving the way for a repeat of what happened 12 months ago, when they won through to a final against the Lions. Talking of the Lions, there is still a chance of WP hosting a final, which will happen if the champions beat the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and WP pull off an upset win.
Like all the unions in South Africa, WP needs the financial windfall that will come with a home final. So there is plenty of pressure regardless of what any of the coaches might say to the contrary.
While the Bulls haven't played in a final since they beat the Cheetahs in Pretoria in 2009, WP have only missed out on one since then - the 2011 final when the Lions beat the Sharks. They lost to the Sharks in Durban in 2010, beat the Sharks at the same venue in 2012, lost to the Sharks in Cape Town in 2013, beat the Lions in Cape Town in 2014, and lost to the Lions in Johannesburg last year. Twice they've made the final from positions where they weren't in the top two on the final log - last year and in 2012, when they beat the Lions in the last minute in an Ellis Park semi-final.
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