There will be no lack of commitment, passion nor fire – nor even skill – when the Cheetahs meet the Bulls on Saturday in a potential decider for the South African SuperRugby conference.
The competition will then take a break for the June Tests and the humdinger in Bloemfontein is a perfect way to go into the recess. The Cheetahs are currently five points behind the Bulls so, with just three rounds remaining once the franchises return to action, it is imperative Naka Drotske’s men win in order to ensure the three-time champions don’t start running away with the conference title.
While both sets of forwards are phenomenally powerful in the collisions, the Cheetahs have the stronger scrum and a backline that is more likely to create something out of nothing. The Bulls have the most efficient lineout in the competition, but there is another key area where they have the edge.
The Cheetahs lack a general of the calibre of Morné Steyn at flyhalf and, as talented as Elgar Watts is, he lacks the experience and the masterful boot that his Springbok counterpart will surely bring to what is going to be a tight contest, played with the same intensity as a final.
With the announcement of the Springbok squad for those June Tests happening within an hour of the end of the Bulls/Cheetahs clash, there are also some intriguing individual clashes that could decide who gets a place in Heyneke Meyer’s match-day 22 and who doesn’t.
The most obvious of these contests in the match will be at inside centre where Jan Serfontein comes up against Robert Ebersohn; the physically strong young upstart against the silky skills and clever reading of the game that characterises Ebersohn after six years in SuperRugby.
The arrival of Lappies Labuschagné as an outstanding loose forward also sets up an intriguing battle with Bulls youngster Arno Botha, a member of last year’s Springbok squad for the Rugby Championship and the end-of-year tour but still uncapped. The reward of a place on the bench against Italy in Durban next weekend could be up for grabs.
A top-class Cheetahs loose trio also features Philip van der Walt and Heinrich Brüssow, who both also have plenty to prove after not getting a call-up from Meyer for the national training camps, a sad oversight in many people’s eyes.
While loose forward is, as usual, a department where the Springboks have a wealth of riches, there is a potential opening at fullback.
Willie le Roux is playing left wing for the Cheetahs, but he has a roaming role and if he can breach a superb Bulls defence on attack, make his tackles and absorb a probable aerial bombardment, then he might just encourage Meyer to take a chance on him at international level.
Hennie Daniller is also a solid figure at fullback for the Cheetahs, while Springbok incumbent Zane Kirchner could make a return to SuperRugby off the bench after a finger operation.
The Bulls scrum, up against the mightily impressive Coenie Oosthuizen, Adriaan Strauss and Lourens Adriaanse, will be a concern for Frans Ludeke and the coach has chosen an all-Springbok trio of Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle and Dean Greyling in the front row.
The Bulls lineout makes up for any shortcomings there, however, with Juandré Kruger, Flip van der Merwe, Pierre Spies and Ralepelle forming a superb unit.
The visitors are unlikely not to see enough of the ball then in Bloemfontein, but where the game will be won or lost is in how and where the possession is used.
The Cheetahs have to absorb the slow-poison tactics of the Bulls and make sure they don’t fall into the trap of trying too much in their own half of the field. The iron wall of the Bulls defence and the pressure they exert at the breakdowns will then inevitably bring the boot of Steyn into play.
But if the Cheetahs are able to spend lengthy periods in the Bulls’ 22, then they have the attacking weapons to score the tries that move the scoreboard along even quicker.
The Stormers and the Southern Kings meet earlier on Saturday at Newlands in the only other match involving South African teams this weekend.
The Kings will be without regular captain Luke Watson, who has withdrawn due to flu. He has been replaced by Jacques Engelbrecht, but that will only help as the Cape Town-born 27-year-old brings exactly the sort of physicality and power that is needed against the Stormers, especially if the weather is as wet as most people in the area are predicting.
The Kings are also without lock Steven Sykes, a real stalwart for them this season, and wing Siyanda Grey, but the Newlands faithful might want to shield the eyes of any women and children in the stadium as the Eastern Cape side are going to bring a ferocious attitude as this really is their last chance saloon when it comes to avoiding the promotion/relegation game.
The Stormers are already 10 points in front of the Kings, so victory on Saturday will put to bed any fears that they won’t be in SuperRugby next year.
The home side, despite their lowly 11th position in the standings, showed last weekend in holding off the title-chasing Reds that there is still plenty of spirit and ability in the Stormers camp.
With this game likely to be won in the trenches, Stormers coach Allister Coetzee has brought more experience back into the pack with Deon Fourie returning to the loose trio and De Kock Steenkamp back in the second row.
The reliable Steenkamp will be in the number five jersey, meaning Eben Etzebeth, who made such an impression there in last weekend’s game, will be back at the front of the lineout. Whether he will play in the same position in the Springbok side remains to be seen.
The Stormers have shown some inconsistency in the set-pieces, which is where the Kings could attack them, and the loose trio of Nizaam Carr, Fourie and Siya Kolisi will also have their hands full stopping the big ball-runners coming their way – Engelbrecht, Wimpie van der Walt and Cornell du Preez.
The weather forecast is awful, however, so the boots of Stormers fullback Joe Pietersen and Kings flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis could well have the final say.
Stormers (v Southern Kings, Saturday 15:05): Joe Pietersen, Gio Aplon, Jean de Villiers, Damian de Allende, Bryan Habana, Elton Jantjies, Louis Schreuder, Nizaam Carr, Deon Fourie, Siya Kolisi, De Kock Steenkamp, Eben Etzebeth, Brok Harris, Tiaan Liebenberg, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements: Martin Bezuidenhout, Chris Heiberg, Gerbrandt Grobler, Don Armand, Dewaldt Duvenage, Gary van Aswegen, Gerhard van den Heever.
Southern Kings (v Stormers, Saturday 15:05): SP Marais, Siviwe Soyizwapi, Ronnie Cooke, Andries Strauss, Marcello Sampson, Demetri Catrakilis, Nicolas Vergallo, Jacques Engelbrecht, Wimpie van der Walt, Cornell du Preez, David Bulbring, Darron Nell, Kevin Buys, Bandise Maku, Schalk Ferreira. Replacements: Hannes Franklin, Grant Kemp, Rynier Bernardo, Devin Oosthuizen, Shaun Venter, Shane Gates, George Whitehead.
Cheetahs (v Bulls, Saturday 17:10): Hennie Daniller, Raymond Rhule, Johann Sadie, Robert Ebersohn, Willie le Roux, Elgar Watts, Piet van Zyl, Philip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagné, Heinrich Brüssow, Francois Uys, Lood de Jager, Lourens Adriaanse, Adriaan Strauss, Coenie Oosthuizen. Replacements: Ryno Barnes, Trevor Nyakane, Ligtoring Landman, Boom Prinsloo, Sarel Pretorius, Riaan Smit, Rayno Benjamin.
Bulls (v Cheetahs, Saturday 17:10pm): Jürgen Visser, Lionel Mapoe, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Bjorn Basson, Morné Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Pierre Spies, Arno Botha, Deon Stegmann, Juandré Kruger, Flip van der Merwe, Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Dean Greyling. Replacements: Callie Visagie, Frik Kirsten, Grant Hattingh, Dewald Potgieter, Jano Vermaak, Louis Fouché, Zane Kirchner.
Other fixtures: Crusaders v Waratahs (Friday 9.35am), Brumbies v Hurricanes (Friday 11.40am), Highlanders v Blues (Saturday 9.35am), Reds v Rebels (Saturday 11.40am).
Byes: Sharks, Chiefs, Force.