The Currie Cup enters its first knockout stage this weekend and for all the sides there is a varying weight of expectation that returning Springboks will make the difference and inspire their teams into the final.
As the Lions proved last year in winning the title, bringing big-name players back into the squad this late in the season can, however, disturb the unity and fabric of a team that has presumably gelled to a greater or lesser extent over the 10 previous weekends in order to reach the semi-finals.
Western Province, like last year, will be travelling to Johannesburg to take on the Lions, but they have already lost three of their returning Springboks with centre Jean de Villiers, lock Andries Bekker and hooker Tiaan Liebenberg all injured in the last week.
It may actually help coach Allister Coetzee that the only “new” faces in the starting XV are now Bryan Habana out on the wing, Duane Vermeulen at eighthman and Eben Etzebeth at lock, while outside centre Juan de Jongh played the first half of the Currie Cup season for Western Province.
The replacement for De Villiers in the number 12 jersey, Marcel Brache, is a tall, strong player who has made a definite impact this season and it will be good to see him in the pressure situation of a semi-final.
Likewise, it is just reward for his livewire performances that Scarra Ntubeni will now play instead of Liebenberg and is within touching distance of appearing in that Currie Cup final every young player aspires to, but the absence of Bekker will be a blow because he has such a presence in the lineouts and one fancies Western Province may have attacked the Lions in that facet. His replacement, De Kock Steenkamp, is a solid player but not a potential match-winner like Bekker.
Western Province took the Cheetahs apart last weekend to earn their semi-final berth, but it was mostly one-way traffic against a troubled side.
The Lions are a totally different prospect: a settled unit and clearly a team that plays for each other, only strengthened by the players’ decision to stand together and oust former coach John Mitchell.
They would not have taken much out of their last game, when they rested several key players and were mauled 50-29 by the Bulls, but they did the same thing last year and they were near-unstoppable in the semi-final and final.
Lions stand-in coach Johan Ackermann had difficult decisions to make this week regarding four current Springboks – Jaco Taute, Elton Jantjies, Pat Cilliers and CJ van der Linde – and he has decided to start Taute and Jantjies, both of whom have played their fair share of Currie Cup this year, while either Cilliers or Van der Linde will play off the bench, alongside former internationals Butch James and hooker Bandise Maku.
The Lions lost two of their first three matches, and have lost their previous two games, but in between they have gained decent momentum and there is no particular aspect of their play that can be considered weak. If they do the basics well on Saturday, then few would bet against them beating Western Province, who have been far less settled and have a long history of underperformance in knockout games.
The other semi-final is between the Bulls and the Sharks in Durban and it has been a long and hard campaign for the men from Pretoria.
It’s bad enough for the Blue Bulls faithful that their team has not won the Currie Cup for three years; to have only escaped possible relegation on the final weekend of round-robin play is nothing short of a scandal. So there is no lack of hunger in Dewald Potgieter’s team to turn a pig’s ear of a season into an extraordinary triumph.
If anyone knows about winning knockout games it will be Bulls flyhalf Morne Steyn, who played well last weekend but whether the year’s tribulations have left him mentally fatigued will be fully examined by the Sharks and the pressure of a semi-final.
The presence of Springboks Zane Kirchner, Francois Hougaard, Jacques Potgieter, Juandre Kruger and Flip van der Merwe has added some much-needed quality to the Bulls side, but the ball-in-hand, free-flowing style of the Sharks will certainly test the defensive prowess of the visitors.
Defence has been the obvious weakness of the Bulls this year and they will face a difficult balancing act in terms of how many numbers to commit to the breakdowns, especially since the Sharks like to play a high-tempo game.
Sharks coach John Plumtree has refused to put all his eggs in one basket when it comes to the Springboks and hooker Craig Burden, prop Tendai Mtawarira and flank Willem Alberts will all be used off the bench as impact players.
At this stage last year, Plumtree brought all his World Cup Springboks back at once and it meant the Sharks produced a disjointed display when it really mattered.
Wing JP Pietersen would have been a key player for the Springboks this year were it not for injury, and he is the main threat in a backline that is well-suited to counter-attacking from wayward kicks hoisted on to them by the Bulls.
Pat Lambie will also be pulling the strings at flyhalf and, with rain forecast for the match, he has an ideal opportunity to dissuade Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer from returning the number 10 jersey to Steyn for what are expected to be wet conditions for the United Kingdom tour.
While Coetzee, Ackermann, Bulls coach Pine Pienaar and Plumtree are all gambling in different ways, spare a thought for Free State Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske.
His job is most definitely on the line as his team go into the first leg of their promotion/relegation playoff against the EP Kings. Drotske’s expansive style has not worked and his best bet would seem to be to return to more percentage rugby now that his own future depends on the result.
The Kings, the owners of an unbeaten record in the Currie Cup First Division, will obviously arrive in Bloemfontein with confidence high, but whether they can step up to the next level against a Premier Division outfit remains to be seen.
If they can keep the ball away from the dangerous Cheetahs backs then they may have a chance.
In an interesting conundrum, Drotske will be expecting utter professionalism from his inside centre Andries Strauss, who has a contract to play for the Kings next year and would obviously benefit if they were to be promoted at the expense of his current team!