Sharks and Western Province have home semifinals in sight
It is time to put up or shut up in the Currie Cup, with major moves to be made at both ends of the table this weekend.
At the top of the log the Sharks and Western Province will have home semifinals in sight in the penultimate pool round, but both face tough assignments against the Blue Bulls and the Golden Lions respectively.
At the other end of the table Griquas are fighting to avoid a promotion/relegation play-off whilst the Blue Bulls and the Cheetahs cannot afford to drop a game as they scrap for a semifinal spot.
Things get underway at Loftus Versfeld on Friday night where the table-topping Sharks come up against a desperate Bulls side.
Saturday will see two games played in the relatively early 14.00 slot with Province looking to maintain their unbeaten status against the Lions and Griquas taking on the Cheetahs in Kimberley.
Although the Sharks and Province have already ensured they will be playing knock-out rugby, there are stil three other sides fighting over the other two semifinal spots.
The Cheetahs and the Lions will have to win away from home in order to move a step closer to the final four, whilst the Bulls will want to back up their win in Kimberley last week with a victory at home.
Griquas have won only one of their eight matches so far this season, and with the Blue Bulls six points ahead on the log table they need to win both their remaining matches, while the Blue Bulls have to suffer defeats without bonus points in order to prevent finishing last.
We take a closer look at the matches:
Friday, October 4
Blue Bull v Sharks
(Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria - Kick-off: 19.10; 17.10 GMT)
The Bulls have had a tough season but they could prove something of a banana skin for the Sharks as the Durban side looks to secure a home semifinal in Pretoria.
The knock-out phase of the competition has effectively already begun for the Bulls, so they will be desperate in front of their home crowd.
Their emphatic performance in Kimberley last week certainly made the Sharks sit up and take note, so while they may be at different ends of the table, this one is by no means cut and dried.
Sharks forwards coach Brad Macleod-Henderson knows that the first challenge will be to physically confront what will be a fired up Bulls side.
"It's going to be another tough game against the Bulls away from home, they'll be desperate to keep their hopes alive of qualifying for the play-offs," he said.
He added that the intensity they produced against Griquas last week was an indication of what his side can expect.
"Last week, they would have known that they needed three wins to get a semifinal place, and they played a fantastic game against Griquas to get the result they did.
"That will give them a lot of confidence, they have quite a few young guys in their squad and some previous results hadn't gone their way, so last weekend's win would have given them a big boost," he said.
Sharks backline coach Sean Everitt echoed those sentiments and warned that his side will have to be on top of their game.
"The Bulls put in an incredible performance against Griquas on the weekend. No-one else has been able to put that kind of score on them this year, and in Kimberley, Griquas are difficult so the Bulls were really good and we'll have to be at our best at Loftus on Friday," he said.
Matches between these teams are traditionally fierce and hard-fought up front, and with plenty at stake for both sides this one should be quite physical.
The Sharks will be keen to take some momentum into the knock-out stages just before their Boks return next week, and the Bulls are fighting for survival .
Prediction: It will be hard work against a motivated Bulls side, but the Sharks should edge a victory by about five points.
Blue Bulls: 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 William Small-Smith, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Jono Ross (captain), 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Wiaan Liebenberg, 5 David Bulbring, 4 Paul Willemse, 3 Frik Kirsten, 2 Mbongeni Mbonambi, 1 Marcel van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Dean Greyling, 18 Grant Hattingh, 19 Jacques Engelbrecht, 20 Lohan Jacobs, 21 Ulrich Beyers, 22 Sampie Mastriet.
Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Tim Whitehead, 12 Heimar Williams, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Keegan Daniel (captain), 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Peet Marais, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Kyle Cooper, 1 Dale Chadwick.
Replacements: 16 Monde Hadebe, 17 Danie Mienie, 18 Edwin Hewitt, 19 Marcell Coetzee, 20 Charl McLeod, 21 Andrew James, 22 Louis Ludik.
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen
Assistant referees: Quinton Immelman, Attie Buitendag
TMO: Deon van Blommestein
Saturday, October 5
Western Province v Golden Lions
(Newlands, Cape Town - Kick-off: 14.00; 12.00 GMT)
Defending champions Western Province stand as the only unbeaten side left in the competition, but they have yet to hit top gear in a season which has seen them edge a series of tight matches.
They face a new-look Lions side which has changed significantly from the combination that lost to the Sharks last week with some players out through injury and others returning.
Marnitz Boshoff is at flyhalf in place of Elton Jantjies and has a brand new midfield of Lionel Cronje and Lionel Mapoe outside him with Chrysander Botha slotting in at fullback.
The Johannesburg side will watch the match at Loftus on Friday night with interest, knowing that defeat for the Bulls will secure them a semifinal.
The last time these two sides met it ended in a thrilling draw at Ellis Park, with both sides dominating in patches, so the challenge will be to sustain pressure for 80 minutes at Newlands.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann would like to speed the game up as much as possible in order to break down the dogged Province defence, but he would also like his team to tighten things up when they do not have the ball.
"We are always keen to get quicker ball from the rucks and breakdown. Some individuals are working on their tackle techniques, so defence is a focal point as well.
"However, we are also always working on our attack, because we don't want to neglect that - we have scored plenty of tries this year, but we are not going to sit back in that regard," he said.
Province have got Demetri Catrakilis starting at flyhalf and Schalk Burger on the bench as they look to build some momentum before the play-offs.
Coach Allister Coetzee said that Burger's versatility will be valuable as his team look to up the intensity at the end and finish strong.
"Schalk will definitely cover seven and eight, and possibly lock in the last ten.
"It was always part of the plan with his comeback to make sure that Schalla doesn't really do things too early and too much at a time. I don't think there is any hast in rushing him, it is part of the plan," he said.
Although Coleman has done a good job this season, Coetzee expects Catrakilis' composure to play a big role in such a high-pressure match.
"That is what a 10 must do - take control and give direction to the team. If you look at the stats Kurt is a 85% goal-kicker and I expect Demetri to be at that same level.
"So that is something that he has which at times we will probably need this weekend. Also giving direction
to our general attack, Kurt has done well in that department and I expect Demetri to do so as well," he said.
Prediction: The Lions will take the game to the hosts, but Province should do just enough once more so we expect them to win by three points.
Western Province: 15 Gio Aplon, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Michael van der Spuy, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 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 Frans Malherbe, 17 Brok Harris, 18 Schalk Burger, 19 Josh Katzen, 20 Nic Groom, 21 Kurt Coleman, 22 Ryan Nell.
Golden Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Chrysander Botha, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Lionel Cronje, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Michael Bondesio, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Derick Minnie (captain), 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Chris van Zyl, 4 Willie Britz, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 CJ van der Linde.
Replacements: 16 Willie Wepener, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Hugo Kloppers, 19 Warwick Tecklenberg, 20 Ross Cronje, 21 Kobus de Kock, 22 Deon Helberg.
Referee: Stuart Berry
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert, Marc van Zyl
TMO: Shaun Veldsman
Griquas v Cheetahs
(GWK Park, KImberley - Kick-off: 14.00; 12.00 GMT)
It will be a battle of neighbours and franchise parnter in Kimberley on Saturday as Griquas look for their second win of a frustrating season and the Cheetahs look to secure a semifinal spot.
The home side have been plagued by injury this season, and are coming off a heavy defeat to the Bulls, so they will be keen to make a statement against Naka Drotske's men.
They have had to bring in Falcons tighthead prop Nico Pretorius and the musical chairs in the second row has continued as well, so cohesion up front may be something of a challenge.
Their backline is unchanged and they will be desperate to bounce back after leaking so amny tries against the Bulls.
They face a Cheetahs side that had their hearts broken at the death against Western Province last week, so they will be keen to bounce back with a confidence-boosting away win ahead of the play-offs.
The Cheetahs have more big names, but they will have to work hard up front to give them the platform to dominate on the hard Kimberley pitch.
Prediction: The Griquas will go hard at the Cheetahs, but the visitors have too much firepower and should take this one by about ten points.
Griquas: 15 Gouws Prinsloo, 14 Richard Lawson, 13 JP Nel, 12 Howard Mnisi, 11 Rocco Jansen, 10 Francois Brummer, 9 Marnus Hugo, 8 Leon Karemaker, 7 RJ Liebenberg, 6 Marnus Schoeman, 5 Jaco Nepgen, 4 Dalton Davis, 3 Nico Pretorius, 2 Ryno Barnes (captain), 1 Steph Roberts
Replacements: 16 Matthew Dobson, 17 Brummer Badenhorst, 18 Rory Arnold, 19 Patrick O'Brien, 20 Jacques Coetzee, 21 Du Randt Gerber, 22 Jean Stemmet.
Free State Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Piet Lindeque, 13 Johann Sadie, 12 Robert Ebersohn, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Elgar Watts, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Johannes Prinsloo (captain), 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Teboho Mohoje, 5 Lodewyk de Jager, 4 Francois Uys, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Hercu Liebenberg, 1 Schalk van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 AJ le Roux, 17 Rossouw de Klerk, 18 Philip van der Walt, 19 Freddy Ngoza, 20 Piet van Zyl, 21 Willie du Plessis, 22 Joubert Engelbrecht.
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan
Assistant referees: Louwrens van der Merwe, Francois de Bruin
TMO: Gerrie Coetzee