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
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
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
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.
week’s fixtures (home teams first):
Friday, August 21
EP Kings v Pumas, 19:00
Saturday, August 22
Sharks v Golden Lions, 17:05
Blue Bulls v Western
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing