Jan de Koning looks at the Round Three action
The Currie Cup competition may still have many detractors, but the results of the first two rounds suggest we are in for another eight weeks of great entertainment.
The absence of the Springboks has again proved to be a great leveller.
So far the biggest winning margin has been eight points and we had a six-point win. The other matches produced a two-point victory, two one-pointers and a draw.
Only two teams - the table-topping Blue Bulls and Western Province - remain unbeaten. The Free State Cheetahs, the only team to have earned a bonus point in both their matches, are also on six points - but trail the Bulls and WP on points difference.
The Sharks and Griquas are both one point further down, while the winless Golden Lions are last with a solitary bonus point.
The Week Three action start in Bloemfontein on Friday, when the Cheetahs host the Sharks at the Free State Stadium.
On Saturday Griquas host Province in Kimberley in their first home match, while the Bulls go up against the Lions in a trans-Jukskei Gauteng derby.
Jan de Koning looks at the Round Three action!
Friday, August 23:
Free State Cheetahs v Sharks
(Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein - Kick-off: 19.10; 17.10 GMT)
If anybody suggests that the Currie Cup is a competition on 'no name' players, point that poorly-informed pundit to the team sheets for this match.
There will be 12 Springboks - of both recent and distant vintage - on display in Bloemfontein on Friday.
The Sharks have eight internationals - wing Lwazi Mvovo, scrumhalves Charl McLeod (starting) and Cobus Reinach (on the bench), loose forwards Jean Deysel and Keegan Daniel, lock Marco Wentzel, replacement hooker Craig Burden and veteran flyhalf Butch James (also on the bench).
The Cheetahs' most high-profile Bok is discarded prop Trevor Nyakane, who was dispatched to the Currie Cup after a series of team breaches in the past fortnight. Add the names of centre Robert Ebersohn, wing Raymond Rhule and replacement loose forward Davon Raubenheimer and you get a good idea of the high quality of rugby you can expect.
Cheetahs assistant coach Hawies Fourie felt the Boks give the Sharks that balance you look for.
"The Sharks, of all the teams in the Currie Cup competition, have the highest number of players who have featured for the Springboks [either training squad or playing]," he said of the eight internationals.
"On the one hand they have a very experienced team, but there are also a number of very good youngsters," Fourie told this website, adding that the Cheetahs know exactly what awaits then on Friday.
The Cheetahs are desperate to bounce back from last week's disappointing loss to Western Province - where they raced into a 14-0 lead and then saw WP snatch a 15-14 victory with a late try - through a rolling maul from 20 metres out.
"If you look back to our game against Western Province it is obvious the set pieces were not good enough and our kicking game was also below par," Fourie said, when asked what will be key to the encounter in Bloemfontein.
"Those are the two aspects we have paid a lot of attention to this week. We have to ensure we get good quality first phase possession - you can only dictate terms in the game if you have the majority of the possession.
"And when you kick, you must kick accurately. You can't afford to kick the ball down the opposition's throats, like we did [at Newlands last week]. That just puts you under pressure after such a [poor] kick.
"As for the Sharks, we know that for Brendon Venter defence is a big priority and he pays a lot of attention to - they certainly work hard on preventing tries."
Sharks forwards coach Brad Macleod-Henderson was equally lavish with his praise of the Cheetahs, pointing out that they have got some nice continuity from Super Rugby.
"They play with quite a bit of depth and they have some exciting runners out wide and a strong pack of forwards," the Sharks mentor told this website.
"They are a complete outfit and a quality side," he said, adding: "They do also have a good kicking game and a strong defence.
"Those are the areas of their game they have improved in the last year, but they still have the ability to score some fantastic tries.
"They are mixing it well with a strong defence and a strong kicking game."
2012: Sharks won 37-30, Bloemfontein
2012: Sharks won 34-32, Durban
2011: Sharks won 20-13, Durban (semifinal)
2011: Cheetahs won 53-32, Bloemfontein
2011: Sharks won 43-34, Durban
2010: Sharks won 30-16, Durban
2010: Sharks won 25-13, Bloemfontein
Prediction: The Cheetahs just do not seem the same without the leadership of Adriaan Strauss and the powerful, energetic play of Coenie Oosthuizen. However, you can never write them off - certainly not in Bloemfontein. The Sharks last week showed glimpses of the Brendan Venter style - a team with solid basic that can grind the opposition down. The Sharks may well sneak this one - by less than 10 points.
Free State Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Riaan Smit, 13 Johann Sadie, 12 Robert Ebersohn, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Elgar Watts, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Lappies Labuschagne, 6 Boom Prinsloo (captain), 5 Lodewyk de Jager, 4 Teboho Mohoje, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Hercu Liebenberg, 1 Caylib Oosthuizen.
Replacements: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Rossouw de Klerk, 18 Freddie Ngoza, 19 Davon Raubenheimer, 20 Kevin Luiters, 21 Willie du Plessis, 22 Joubert Engelbrecht.
Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 Sizo Maseko, 13 Louis Ludik, 12 Heimar Williams, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Jacques Botes (captain), 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Marco Wentzel, 4 Edwin Hewitt, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Kyle Cooper, 1 Dale Chadwick.
Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Rayno Gerber, 18 Peet Marais, 19 Tera Mtembu, 20 Cobus Reinach, 21 Butch James, 22 Jaco van Tonder.
Referee: Jason Jaftha
Assistant Referees: Jaco van Heerden, Pieter Janse van Vuuren
TMO: Deon van Blommestein
Saturday, August 24:
Griquas v Western Province
(GWK Park, Kimberley - Kick-off: 15.00; 13.00 GMT)
Two aspects have repeatedly come up for discussion in the build-up to this game - the conditions, with Kimberley's notoriously hard surface, and the scrums.
Province captain Deon Fourie admitted that in Kimberley Griquas in Kimberley is a tough hurdle, regardless of the conditions.
However, with WP they having trained on heavy and wet fields in Cape Town - the result of an exceptionally wet end to the winter months - it is expected the home team will have at least one advantage.
"The pitch will be a big difference to what we trained on," Fourie told a media scrum at the Province team's training base in Bellville.
"I it is also Griquas' first home game of this season and they will be on a mission, especially after they had an away win [in Round One against the Sharks]."
He was supported by his coach Allister Coetzee, who spoke of expecting a "massive battle".
"For us it's about building momentum and not letting slip the things that we've improved on last week," Coetzee told the media.
"That's what consistency is about and that's what you need in this competition whether you're at home or away."
For Griquas the scrums will be key, given that they lost stalwart Lourens Adriaanse to the Springboks this week.
Griquas coach Pote Human admitted their job has been complicated by the loss of their scrum anchor.
"They [WP] scrummed very well last week against Cheetahs, they put them under tremendous pressure," Human told this website.
"We know them well, their line-out ability and Deon Fourie is outstanding with ball in hand."
He described Province as the most underestimated team in the competition.
"Last year everybody said they don't have the tight forwards and they proved them all wrong by winning the Currie Cup competition," the Griquas mentor added.
He drafted in young Nick Schonert at prop for Adriaanse, but backed the rookie to stand his man against the physical WP pack.
"Nick is a young prop with huge potential and we look forward to him proving his worth," Human said.
"The absence of Lourens Adriaanse is a huge setback for us, especially at scrum time, but we have complete faith in Nick in that regard."
The Province captain, Fourie, tried to play down his team's expected superiority in the set-piece department.
"You can't read too much into the first few weeks of the scrums," he told a media gathering.
"In our first game against the Bulls we didn't do well in the scrums and last week [against the Cheetahs] we turned it around completely," Fourie said, adding: "They will work hard on that [the scrums] and the new engagement sequence is just minor technique issues that you need to change and if you get it right on the day things will go your way."
The Province coach also felt referees will continue to play a key role, in how it is managed at scrum time.
"As Deon said, it will take a couple of weeks before everybody are in sync, players and referees," Coetzee said, adding: "We want the scrums just like the line-outs, if it is your ball, you want to know where to throw the ball and you must have the advantage.
"The same with the scrums, you want the advantage when it is your ball. It can't be a completely equal thing.
"When the ref says: 'Yes No.9', everybody knows now the ball is coming and we are going to scrum. Things will change as we go forward and only the guy putting the ball in will know, that pack must know when the ball is coming in.
"That is what we are working towards," he said, adding that referees and coaches are all buying into that.
2012: Western Province won 45-21, Cape Town
2012: Western Province won 25-20, Kimberley
2011: Western Province won 41-35, Kimberley
2011: Western Province and Griquas drew 26-all, Cape Town
2010: Western Province won 48-32, Cape Town
2010: Western Province won 50-3, Kimberley
Prediction: The questions is: 'Which Griquas team will turn up on Saturday?' Will it be the one that showed great heart to edge the Sharks in Durban, or the one that failed to pitch up against the Blue Bulls in Pretoria last week? At Kimberley Griquas are usually a lot more determined and should give Western Province a run for their money. However, we feel the visitors will have just too much in the tank and win by about 10 points.
Griquas: 15 PJ Vermeulen, 14 Nico Scheepers, 13 JP Nel, 12 Howard Mnisi, 11 Rocco Jansen, 10 Francois Brummer, 9 Marnus Hugo, 8 Leon Karemaker, 7 Hilton Lobberts, 6 Carel Greeff, 5 Jaco Nepgen, 4 Jonathan Adendorf, 3 Nick Schonert, 2 Ryno Barnes (captain), 1 Steph Roberts.
Replacements: 16 Matt Dobson, 17 Brummer Badenhorst, 18 RJ Liebenberg, 19 Burger Schoeman, 20 Jacques Coetzee, 21 Du Randt Gerber, 22 Richard Lawson.
Western Province: 15 Gio Aplon, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 10 Kurt Coleman, 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Rynhardt Elstadt, 6 Deon Fourie (captain), 5 De Kock Steenkamp, 4 Michael Rhodes, 3 Pat Cilliers, 2 Scarra Ntubeni, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Tiaan Liebenberg, 17 Brok Harris, 18 Gerbrandt Grobler, 19 Rohan Kitshoff, 20 Nic Groom, 21 Tim Swiel, 22 Ryan Nell.
Referee: Sindile Mayende
Assistant Referees: Ben Crouse, Francois de Bruin
TMO: Gerrie Coetzee
Blue Bulls v Golden Lions
(Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria - Kick-off: 17.05; 15.05 GMT)
The Blue Bulls may be sitting pretty at the top of the Currie Cup standings, but they are already glancing nervously over their collective shoulders with trans-Jukskei rivals the Golden Lions arriving in Pretoria on Saturday.
The men from Johannesburg were an intercept try away from an upset win against the Sharks last week, while the Cheetahs also scored a late winner against the Lions in Week One.
Bulls coach Pine Pienaar feels it is not long before the Lions overcome those late lapses and turn their narrow defeats into victories.
In fact he suggested that second-half replacements could hold the key, as the Bulls have named three of their four Southern Kings imports on their bench this week - one-time Springbok hooker Bandise Maku, loose forward Jacques Engelbrecht and Bok midfielder Waylon Murray.
"The Lions will come out and they always play well, especially in the second half when they up the tempo, so it will help the team if they [the replacements] make a difference," Pienaar said.
Pienaar said he was looking for a much-improved performance from last week's scrappy 15-9 victory over Griquas.
"There were too many turnover balls, especially in the first half, and here and the scrums were also an issue for us," the Bulls mentor said.
"Our discipline cost us a bit and with that you are going to lose momentum, possession and territory.
"We have played well in patches this far and we now need to produce a more lasting effort."
Lions counterpart Johan Ackermann, who is desperate for his team to get their first win of the season, spoke of the "strong culture" for the game that exists in Pretoria.
"When they put on that [light blue] jersey they are very motivated," the Lions coach told this website.
"They also have a lot of pride when they play at Loftus [Versfeld] - that is going to make it tough," he said, adding: "We will have to play very good rugby for 80 minutes if we want any chance to win."
2012: Blue Bulls won 50-29, Johannesburg
2012: Golden Lions won 32-23, Pretoria
2011: Blue Bulls won 21-18, Johannesburg
2011: Golden Lions won 36-27, Pretoria
2010: Blue Bulls won 24-21, Pretoria
2010: Blue Bulls won 32-18, Johannesburg
Prediction: The Blue Bulls were not given a snowball's hope in hell of winning against Western Province in the opening round and they managed a draw away from home. Last week may have been scrappy and dour, but they men from Pretoria managed to get the result and sit at the top of the standings. That says something of the young Bulls team. The Golden Lions will entertain, but most likely flatter only to deceive again. We feel the Blue Bulls will win by about 15 points.
Blue Bulls: 15 Jürgen Visser, 14 Sampie Mastriet, 13 Ulrich Beyers, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Travis Ismaiel, 10 Tony Jantjies, 9 Ruan Snyman, 8 Jono Ross (captain), 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Wiaan Liebenberg, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 Paul Willemse, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Mbongeni Mbonambi, 1 Morné Mellett.
Replacements: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Marcel van der Merwe, 18 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 19 Jacques Engelbrecht, 20 Rudy Paige, 21 Waylon Murray, 22 Clayton Blommetjies.
Golden Lions: 15 Chrysander Botha, 14 Deon Helberg, 13 Robert De Bruyn, 12 Dylan Des Fountain, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Guy Cronje, 8 Willie Britz, 7 Derick Minnie (captain), 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Chris van Zyl, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Willie Wepener, 1 Jacques Van Rooyen.
Replacements: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 CJ van der Linde, 18 Lambert Groenewald, 19 Warwick Tecklenburg, 20 Tiaan Meyer, 21 Elton Jantjies, 22 Lionel Cronje.
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan
Assistant Referees: Jaco van Heerden, Cobus Wessels
TMO: Tappe Henning with Andy Turner in training