With the 2017 Currie Cup at its halfway mark, I’ll go out on a limb and say the Free State Cheetahs won’t defend their title.
Yes, the men from Bloemfontein currently occupy top spot on the overall standings, but their main focus has shifted to the PRO14 in Europe.
The Cheetahs earlier this week announced a strong squad for their trip to Ireland as they open their PRO14 campaign against Ulster in Belfast on Friday night.
The Free Staters have thus made it clear that their second-stringers will predominantly feature in the Currie Cup, which will make matters tough for them to defend their title.
They had already rested several players for last weekend’s last-gasp home win over the Golden Lions - a victory that would most definitely have pleased the union’s top brass so often accused of letting talented players slip through their grasp.
But the Cheetahs still have six regular season Curie Cup games remaining and one would expect their depth to be tested as the competition reaches its business end.
Daan Human will take over the reins for the Currie Cup and he’ll have a tough task if the Cheetahs are to remain atop the standings.
At present, the Sharks are the in-form team having notched their fifth straight win when they scored late to deny Western Province at Newlands last weekend.
With Nollis Marais shown the door at the Bulls, the Sharks now remain the only Super Rugby union with the same head coach in the Currie Cup.
The Durbanites have also not been adversely affected by Springbok call-ups, with this lack of disruption no doubt aiding their cause.
It is therefore no surprise that they are 11/10 favourites at the bookmakers to lift the title.
Western Province are the bookies’ second favourites, but question marks remain around their ability to perform when it really matters.
The Capetonians have lost three of their six encounters as their ability to focus for a full 80 minutes proved costly when handy leads were blown against Griquas and the Sharks.
WP's discipline at times leaves much to be desired, while their woeful effort at lineout time is worth almost a column on its own.
Griquas and the Pumas have caused upsets but their lack of depth will make it tough to mount a serious challenge at the business end of the competition.
A sorry plight, at least for the strength of an already under-fire competition, is the state of affairs at the two Gauteng franchises - the Golden Lions and Blue Bulls.
The bottom-of-the-table Lions are finding the going tough since the departure of head coach Johan Ackermann.
The men from Johannesburg have eight players in the current Springbok squad, and with a few others in Japan, Swys de Bruin had to start his tenure with a different outfit to the one which reached the Super Rugby final.
This Lions team is in a rebuilding phase and cannot be expected to challenge for the Currie Cup title in 2017.
The Blue Bulls, meanwhile, appear in dire straits following a humiliating 51-15 mauling at the hands of the Pumas in Nelspruit.
After a string of unconvincing performances, Nollis Marais was removed - although the official statement said he was on leave for the rest of the year - as John Mitchell took over as head coach.
Mitchell, who is officially the Bulls' executive of rugby, saw his tenure start in disastrous fashion in Nelspruit last weekend as the Bulls were on the receiving end of an eight-try mauling, with three players sent to the sin-bin for ill-discipline.
A lack of consistency in selections has been the order of the day for the Bulls and on Thursday Mitchell again wielded the axe by making nine changes to his run-on side for their clash against Griquas.
Remarkably, only No 8 Nic de Jager (who was also named captain mid-season) and lock Ruben van Heerden have started in all six of the Bulls’ Currie Cup matches to date.
They are clearly struggling and it’s no wonder Mitchell on Wednesday said that he was busy with an “extensive overhaul that will take some time”.
It will take some effort for the Bulls and Lions to not remain also-rans for the remainder of the 2017 Currie Cup.
At the halfway mark the smart money is on the Sharks!
Herman Mostert works at Sport24, and for the record, is not a Sharks fan...
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