PREVIEW: Free State Cheetahs v Blue Bulls
CURRIE CUP FINAL: The Free State Cheetahs will have the chance to bag their first Currie Cup Premier Division title since 2007 when they face the Blue Bulls at the Free State Stadium on Saturday.
The home side has enjoyed one of their best Currie Cup seasons in recent memory after going through the entire round-robin phase unbeaten and then smashing the Golden Lions 55-17 in the semifinals.
They will, however, face a Blue Bulls outfit who are equally hungry for success as they last won the title in 2009 – incidentally against the Free Staters in Pretoria – and who also come off an impressive winning run of five matches.
But looking at the history of Currie Cup Finals between these teams, it's clear the Free State Cheetahs will have their work cut out for them. The Blue Bulls have won seven of the nine previous finals between the sides from 1973 to 2009, while the teams shared the title in 2006 after playing to a 28-28 draw after an exhausting 100 minutes of rugby.
Adding spice to the clash, there is an intense rivalry between the teams as they met in back-to-back Currie Cup Finals from 2004 to 2006, with each side winning one, while the other match ended in a draw.
Free State Cheetahs captain Francois Venter admitted that the build-up to the Final is a new experience for many of the players in the camp.
"It is something new, especially the hype, but it is still rugby and that is why we train," Venter told reporters in Bloemfontein.
"We started on day one preparing for a final and we are just going to go out there and enjoy ourselves.
"We have done all the work so far and now we just have to go out there and execute."
Besides their great run to the Final, Venter does not believe in the favourites tag that is associated with them.
"I don't know about being favourites. In a final everything is equal or anything can happen in a final, but the excitement is there.
"It feels as if this week goes by too slowly, where you just want Saturday to come. We have been preparing for a while now and that is why we play rugby, to play in these big games," Venter added.
Meanwhile, Blue Bulls head coach Nollis Marais said they are determined to bring the Currie Cup back to Pretoria for the first time since 2009, but admitted that it will take a massive effort against the high-flying hosts.
"Let me make it clear, we back ourselves to win," said Marais.
"The reality of the matter though is that we are facing a team that is undefeated and playing great rugby. And they play in front of a packed stadium with supporters. So it is not going to be easy, but we have to do it the hard way, which is great."
Marais points to the fact that they were outplayed when they travelled to Bloemfontein earlier in the season, but since then the Blue Bulls gained significant momentum.
"No doubt, we have improved a lot since that day and that is a good thing. We have nice form, but as you know, finals rugby is all about what you deliver on the day."
Blue Bulls captain Arno Botha feels the same.
"It is going to be a very simple equation. The team who plays best during that 80 minutes will win the match and the Currie Cup. We both start at 0-0, so it is up to us to deliver. Yes, it will be tough playing in front of the Cheetahs fans, but they deserved the right to host the final."
Players to watch:
For Free State Cheetahs: Wing Sergeal Petersen scored a hat-trick of tries against the Golden Lions last weekend and will do the same against the Blue Bulls if the Pretoria side gives him too much space. Francois Venter and Nico Lee are a dangerous midfield combination, while scrumhalf Shaun Venter must be one of the smartest players in South African rugby at the moment. In the pack, hooker Torsten van Jaarsveld is robust with ball hand, while lock Reniel Hugo is a vital cog in the physical exchanges. Flank Uzair Cassiem has an unbelievable work rate around the park and will be another one to watch during the 80 minutes.
For Blue Bulls: Flank Roelof Smit gave Western Province plenty of problems at the breakdowns and he will be looking to do the same in Saturday's Final. Prop Lizo Gqoboka has grown with each game he has played this season and is a vital part of a strong Bulls' scrum, while Jannes Kirsten is definitely the hard man in the pack on defence. In the backline, fullback Ulrich Beyers has a powerful boot and he is hard to bring down when he has ball in hand. Wing Jamba Ulengo has pace and power out wide and is dangerous in the air when retrieving high balls.
Head to head: Rudy Paige seems to be the frontrunner to start in the No.9 jersey on the Springboks' end-of-year tour, which means the impressive Shaun Venter will have something to prove in Saturday's Final. Flyhalves Niel Marais and Tian Schoeman will both play vital roles in trying to assert their respective teams' game plans during the 80 minutes and it will be interesting to see who is more influential. Lock Jason Jenkins will have some big shoes to fill in Rudolph Snyman's absence. Jenkins and Marvin Orie will want to put Reniel Hugo and Justin Basson under as much pressure as possible in the line-outs.
2016: Cheetahs won 43-20, Bloemfontein
2015: Blue Bulls won 24-17, Pretoria
2015: Blue Bulls won 57-19, Bloemfontein
2014: Blue Bulls won 31-22, Bloemfontein
2013: Blue Bulls won 26-10, Pretoria
2013: Cheetahs won 22-7, Bloemfontein
Prediction: In the six Currie Cup Finals hosted by the Free State Cheetahs since 1939, they have lost three, won two and registered one draw. Earlier in the season, the Cheetahs registered a brilliant 43-20 victory over the Blue Bulls in the pool stages of the competition, but the Pretoria side defeated them 20-17 in the Currie Cup Qualifier at Loftus Versfeld. The hosts, however, boast better statistics on attack and defence than the Pretoria side, with 55 tries scored and 21 conceded in their nine matches this season, to 42 tries scored by the Blue Bulls and 29 conceded. They will, however, be wary of writing off the Blue Bulls, who found themselves in a similar situation in the 2005 Currie Cup Final – on a nine-match winning running and playing with confidence in front of their home crowd – when the Free Staters defied the odds to take their first title in 29 years. The Cheetahs have been nothing short of fantastic in this year's tournament and they won't let it slip at the final hurdle - Cheetahs to win by 10 points at least.
Free State Cheetahs: 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francois Venter (captain), 12 Nico Lee, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Niel Marais, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Niell Jordaan, 7 Uzair Cassiem, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Justin Basson, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Charles Marais.
Replacements: 16 Jacques du Toit, 17 Retshegofaditswe Nche, 18 Armandt Koster, 19 Henco Venter, 20 Tian Meyer, 21 Fred Zeilinga, 22 Rayno Benjamin, 23 Conrad van Vuuren.
Blue Bulls: 15 Ulrich Beyers, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Dries Swanepoel, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Arno Botha (captain), 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Roelof Smit, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
Replacements: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Martin Dreyer, 18 Pierre Schoeman, 19 Nic de Jager, 20 Hanro Liebenberg, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Joshua Stander, 23 Bjorn Basson.
Date: Saturday, October 22
Venue: Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
Kick-off: 16.00 (14.00 GMT)
Expected weather: It will be partly cloudy with a high of 28C and a low of 13. There are also possible thundershowers in the evening.
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant referees: Jaco van Heerden, Cwengile Jadezweni
TMO: Marius Jonker