Western Province produced a commanding display to dispatch the Free State Cheetahs 36-15 at Newlands on Saturday, giving them third place on the log and a semi-final against the second-placed Lions.
While the Capetonians will bring a squad full of top-class players now that the Springboks have returned to Currie Cup action, Lions fans will remember well that the same thing happened last year, with the Gautengers beating a star-studded Western Province team 29-20 at Ellis Park en route to hammering the Sharks in the final.
The Sharks are once again in contention, having finished at the top of the round-robin standings and they will host the Bulls in the other semi-final in Durban.
The Bulls, who began the final weekend at the bottom of the log and in serious danger of having to play promotion/relegation against the EP Kings, made the top four as Morne Steyn supervised a classy 50-29 victory over the Lions at Ellis Park.
Once the weight of avoiding the relegation playoffs was off their shoulders, the Bulls played with impressive freedom and they certainly have the ammunition now to avenge their 13-12 loss to the Sharks in a sodden Durban two weeks ago.
“We’ve had to fight our way out of a hole, and the last three games we’ve played really well, even when we lost to the Sharks. Conditions were very difficult that day, but we know the Sharks are a tough challenge; they’ve lost just once in Durban the whole year, but we’re just happy we’ve given ourselves the opportunity. A semi-final is a funny sort of game, it depends on who is more accurate on the day,” Bulls coach Pine Pienaar said.
The Lions, meanwhile, were not overly concerned by the big loss, having rested several key players and having the home semi-final already in the bag before the match against the Bulls even started.
“We started to go through the motions a bit, we lacked a bit of experience in the side this weekend and some of the guys started thinking about next week.
“Last year, we played against the Sharks the week before the semi-finals and lost 53-9, so we definitely didn’t have any momentum going into the knockout rounds, but we played our best rugby of the year after that. I felt that when we wanted to play tonight, we could do it and we’re definitely ready for the semi-finals,” Lions stand-in captain Butch James said.
With both Lions’ outside centres – Lionel Mapoe and Deon van Rensburg – suffering injuries at the weekend, Alwyn Hollenbach could well have to slide across into the number 13 jersey, opening up a place inside him for James, with Elton Jantjies coming back at flyhalf. That will set up a fascinating contest next weekend between James and another senior pro in Jean de Villiers in Western Province’s number 12 jersey.
De Villiers was one of the players to shine as the Capetonians, who began the match with an outside chance of being sucked into the relegation battle, produced a clinical display that left the Cheetahs with barely a gram of hope.
Western Province were allowed to run by the lethargic Cheetahs, a wonderful platform being laid by the forwards, led by returning Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth, and the Free Staters were out of the contest by the end of the first quarter.
In the veterinary world, the Cheetahs may have been put down, so lacklustre were they. Naka Drotske’s men could probably do with some defence clinics before their promotion/relegation meeting with the Kings.
The Sharks were another team to hit their straps at the weekend, giving Griquas the run-around in an overwhelming 42-3 victory in Durban. And coach John Plumtree still has some Springbok talent lying around that he can add to the side in the form of Tendai Mtawarira, Willem Alberts and Lwazi Mvovo.
The big question this year is once again whether it is better to have a settled side with continuity – i.e. the Lions – or will the introduction of the Springboks provide the necessary boost for the Bulls or Western Province to overcome the disadvantage of playing away from home?
The Sharks, having learnt the harsh lessons of last year when their seven Springboks returning from the World Cup failed to gel with the rest of the team and they were thumped 42-16 by the Lions in the final, are perhaps in the pound seats because they have experience of these problems and they will be playing both the semi-finals and the final, if they qualify, at King’s Park.