Currie Cup

Fine timing for Bulls-WP clash

2015-08-17 19:30
Francois Hougaard (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - The lull period ahead of the World Cup has begun for the Springboks ... which should have agreeable spinoffs for the Currie Cup for several weeks.

Whether by accident or design, the national team’s absence from active service this weekend - and that will be the case until Saturday, September 19 when they open their RWC account against Japan in Brighton - returns the spotlight quite healthily to the domestic competition with two prime-time crackers in immediate prospect.

Both Saturday evening fixtures feature clashes between the traditional main “Test unions”, and all of them hogging the top four positions on the combined table even though there are nominally two pools.

The headline match sees the top-placed and regrouping Blue Bulls, giants of not too many years ago, entertaining defending champions and similarly unbeaten Western Province at Loftus (19:10); there should be a pretty good turnout for the traditional north v south scrap.

Just ahead of it, the Sharks host 2014 runners-up the Lions in Durban (17:05).

Both games are repeats of the semi-finals last year, even if the venues are different in each instance - Province beat the Bulls 31-23 at Newlands in the 2014 last-four phase, whilst the Lions whipped the Sharks 50-20 in Johannesburg but make the trek down to the coast for this one.

Of the quartet of teams involved, only the Sharks have suffered a setback so far in 2015, considering their 33-24 comeuppance at the hands of the Pumas in Nelspruit in the first round.

Gary Gold’s charges have since bounced back with a hard-fought home 33-25 victory over the limited EP Kings, even if they had to share the try count 4-4.

But considering that the Kings played commendably above themselves at Kings Park - they were leading just a bit short of the hour mark - the Sharks will believe they may have turned a corner just by keeping their heads to land the bonus-point win.

They do look capable on paper (especially with X-factor centre Paul Jordaan fit again) of giving the Lions a serious run for their money.

Yet the visitors will have plenty of aces up their own sleeves, including a lethal midfield of their own with elusive, skill-laden Harold Vorster continuing in the Currie Cup to build on his creative showings in Super Rugby earlier this season.

With full-house victories in both of their first two matches, the Lions have only confirmed, particularly as Johan Ackermann has at his disposal so many of his yeoman Super Rugby troops of a few weeks ago, why they are the branded favourites by plenty of observers to go one better than runners-up in the Currie Cup this year.

Still, the main focus will be on Loftus this week, as the Bulls face the first really acid examination of whether their new, up-tempo brand of play is going to be sustainable and possibly even bear trophy fruits.

They looked out-of-sync and sometimes over-elaborate in the first half of their latest triumph over Griquas in Pretoria, and trailed at the break, but then found rhythm to register four tries in the second 40 minutes, again with a rejuvenated Francois Hougaard at the fulcrum of many raids.

The 27-year-old Springbok “forgotten man” appears to have adopted a more mature approach to his rugby and even if he doesn’t make the World Cup squad - there are several scrumhalves ahead of him in the current pecking order - his versatility and known abilities make him an attractive emergency call-up if someone cries off the tournament after it has started.

If he has another constructive outing against the Bulls’ old enemies, Hougaard could edge even closer to the RWC frame. He is a street-wise individual with 2011 tournament experience: remember that get-out-of-jail try in the opener against Wales, eventually secured 17-16 after the Boks had been on the back foot for ages?

By contrast to the Bulls’ pleasing, try-seeking appetite of the past fortnight, Province won notably “ugly” against Free State in John Dobson’s debut as coach at their rain-afflicted home ground with conditions a fair old leveller.

Despite a very dominant scrum - burly loosehead prop Oliver Kebble is proving an additional handful as a battering ram - and general mastery of the physical and territorial stakes, WP laboured to a tryless, 9-3 victory and seemed to get flustered by the Cheetahs’ cunning spoiling and niggling.

They also suffered the major inconvenience of seeing captain Juan de Jongh being ruled out for the remainder of the round-robin phase of the Currie Cup, at least, with a knee injury, although Nizaam Carr is an able stand-in as leader and slowly clawing his own way back - a bit like Hougaard - to Bok-standard personal levels of play.

This week’s fixtures (home teams first):

Friday, August 21

EP Kings v Pumas, 19:00

Griquas v Cheetahs, 19:10

Saturday, August 22

Sharks v Golden Lions, 17:05

Blue Bulls v Western Province, 19:10.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    blue bulls  |  wp  |  currie cup  |  pretoria  |  cape town  |  rugby


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