Preview: Currie Cup, Round One
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Sixteen weeks of stirring provincial rugby action will be kick-started on Friday when the Currie Cup kicks off in Bloemfontein where the Free State Cheetahs will start the defence of their crown against the Sharks.
This tightly contested Premier Division affair at the Free State Stadium on Friday will be followed on Saturday when two former champions, Griquas and the Blue Bulls, front up in Kimberley. The weekend's action will be concluded Sunday in Nelspruit where the Pumas will host the Golden Lions in the scenic Mbombela Stadium.
Western Province start with a bye.
The 2017 edition of this iconic tournament will see these seven teams contest the Premier Division, playing each other twice on a home and away basis, with the semifinals on October 21 and the Final a week later on October 28.
Both winners in the last two seasons, the Golden Lions (2015) and Free State Cheetahs (2016), came through those respective campaigns undefeated and it will be a unique triple should the 2017 champions be crowned without losing a match.
We take a look at all the Round One action!
Friday, July 21:
Free State Cheetahs v Sharks
(Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein - Kick-off: 19.00; 17.00 GMT)
After an undefeated 2016 season, the Free State Cheetahs will look to start strong again.
They added some serious strike power to their attack this season, with the inclusion of three Springbok Sevens players in their matchday squad.
Rosko Specman will start on the wing, while Cecil Afrika and Chris Dry will add punch off the bench.
Incidentally, three more backline players, Clayton Blommetjies, William Small-Smith and Shaun Venter, also represented the BlitzBoks earlier in their careers.
The Free Staters already boast three Springboks in Francois Venter, Raymond Rhule and Uzair Cassiem and will be coached by Rory Duncan, who takes over from Franco Smith.
The Sharks have a good mix of experience and potential in their starting XV, with two Currie Cup centurions (and former winners) Odwa Ndungane (133 matches) and Keegan Daniel (110 matches) in their midst. Daniel will lead the side on Friday.
Ndungane made his provincial debut 17 years ago – he has won the Currie Cup three times before and will be a valuable sound board to the next generation of Sharks players coming through this season.
One of those will be 20-year-old wing, Ilunga Mukendi, who has shown good form in recent months and is expected to take over the mantle from the Springbok wing.
Newcomers to the 2017 squad include Ross Geldenhuys, Mzamo Majola and Tyler Paul, who represented the Southern Kings in Super Rugby.
2016: Cheetahs won 38-30, Durban
2015: 34-34 draw, Bloemfontein
2014: 30-30 draw, Bloemfontein
2014: Sharks won 19-16, Durban
Prediction: The Cheetahs have too much experience and x-factor players in their side for a young Sharks outfit. The Cheetahs will win this one by 15 points at least.
Free State Cheetahs: 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Rosco Specman, 13 Francois Venter, 12 William Small-Smith, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Niel Marais, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Henco Venter, 7 Uzair Cassiem, 6 Neil Jordaan, 5 Daniel Hugo, 4 Carl Wegner, 3 Aranos Coetzee, 2 Joseph Dweba, 1 Charles Marais.
Replacements: 16 Retshegofaditswe Nche, 17 Reinach Venter, 18 Rynier Bernado, 19 Chris Dry, 20 Zee Mkhabela, 21 JW Jonker, 22 Cecil Afrika.
Sharks: 15 Courtney Winnaar, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Sibusiso Sithole, 12 Marius Louw, 11 Illunga Mukendi, 10 Benhard Janse van Rensburg, 9 Rowan Gouws, 8 Keegan Daniel (captain), 7 Jacques Vermeulen, 6 Khaya Majola, 5 Hyron Andrews, 4 Wian Vosloo, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Kieron van Vuuren, 1 Mzamo Majola.
Replacements: 16 Andrew du Plessis, 17 Thierry Kounga, 18 Tyler Paul, 19 Bandisa Ndlovu, 20 Cameron Wright, 21 Brandan Bailing, 22 Inny Radebe.
Referee: Jadezweni Cwengile
Assistant referees: Jaco Pretorius, Jaco Kotze.
TMO: JJ Wagner
Saturday, July 22:
Griquas v Blue Bulls
(Tafel Lager Park, Kimberley - Kick-off: 19.30; 17.30 GMT)
Losing finalist in 2016, the Blue Bulls will have a new captain in Ruan Steenkamp, while the impact of their new Executive of Rugby John Mitchell will be keenly watched. Boom Prinsloo will lead the side in Kimberley, as Steenkamp battles with a hamstring injury.
The side will be coached by Nollis Marais again, with Mitchell assisting with the attack for now. The likes of Springboks Jamba Ulengo, Rudy Paige and Piet van Zyl will provide some punch, with most of the squad well experienced, having played in the Super Rugby competition.
The try-scoring momentum brought by Warrick Gelant and Duncan Matthews will also stand the team in good stead.
Marais said they have high expectations this season, after making the final in 2016.
"We are in a bit of a transition with regards to our approach going into the future, but the players know each other well, so communication should not be a problem for us," he said.
"We have a tough opponent waiting for us in Kimberley. They did not make the finals of the National Provincial Challenge for nothing and will have good momentum from the last couple of weeks. It will be a huge challenge.
According to Prinsloo, they will face a determined home side.
"To play Griquas in Kimberley is a huge match for any team, as they do not stop fighting for the whole 80 minutes. We need to execute well on attack and make sure our defence stay committed till the final whistle if we want to achieve a positive result. That said, the focus will be on what we want to achieve and our own mental toughness," Prinsloo added.
Griquas will rely heavily on the squad that took them to the final of the recently completed National Provincial Challenge, but also welcome back Clinton Swart, who had a storming season with the Cheetahs in Super Rugby, as well as Poerie van Rooyen, who played at the Southern Kings. Swart will start at centre and Van Rooyen off the bench.
They have proven to be a tough nut to crack at home, losing only once in Kimberley in last year's competition. AJ Coertzen will again lead the side into battle and coach Peter Engledow will be quietly confident of his charges chances to make it into the final four.
"We enjoyed the National Provincial Challenge. It has been a good base for us to prepare for the Currie Cup, but ultimately this is our pride and joy and we are delighted to be in the Currie Cup," said Engeldow.
"It is my fourth year now, it’s the first year that we did not have to qualify, so that has been quite nice.
"We are looking forward to a massive challenge, but also this is where we can test how far we have come as a group of players, who have been together for two seasons now.
"We realise it is not going to be easy and we are going to be under pressure, but that is what we want. We want to see how far we can go and we want to be competitive in this Currie Cup."
2016: Blue Bulls won 57-20, Pretoria
2015: Blue Bulls won 46-32, Kimberley
2015: Blue Bulls won 36-12, Pretoria
2014: Blue Bulls won 46-12, Pretoria
Prediction: Griquas have a lot of continuity from the National Provincial Challenge and they will be a tough side to beat. However, the Bulls, despite their performance in Super Rugby, will have a point to prove as they start a new era. It will be close - the Blue Bulls will edge it by seven points or less.
Griquas: 15 Adriaan Coertzen (captain), 14 Ederies Arendse, 13 Tertius Kruger, 12 Clinton Swart, 11 Koch Marx, 10 Andre Swarts, 9 Christiaan Meyer, 8 Jonathan Janse van Rensburg, 7 Sias Koen, 6 RJ Liebenberg, 5 Floris Pelser, 4 Mzwanele Zito, 3 Ewald van der Westhuizen, 2 Abraham le Roux, 1 Liam Hendricks.
Replacements: 16 Marius Fourie, 17 Nicolaas Oosthuizen, 18 Jonathan Adendorf, 19 Wendal Wehr, 20 Rudi Van Rooyen, 21 George Whitehead, 22 Enver Brandt.
Blue Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Franco Naude, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Duncan Matthews, 10 Tony Jantjies, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Nic de Jager, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Boom Prinsloo (captain), 5 Abongile Nonkontwana, 4 Ruben van Heerden, 3 Conraad van Vuuren, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Replacements: 16 Jan-Henning Campher, 17 John-Roy Jenkinson, 18 Freddy Ngoza, 19 Shaun Adendorff, 20 Andre Warner, 21 Tinus de Beer, 22 JT Jackson.
Referee: AJ Jacobs
Assistant referees: Jaco Pretorius, Darren Colby
TMO: JJ Wagner
Sunday, July 23:
Pumas v Golden Lions
(Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit - Kick-off: 14.30; 12.30 GMT)
The Pumas also have a new coach, following the disappointing performances in 2016, when they only managed one win.
Brent Janse van Rensburg has joined the union from Boland and the team already showed good endeavour in the National Provincial Challenge.
They have Chris Cloete, one of the stand-out flanks in Super Rugby, back from Southern Kings duties, while prop Pieter Scholtz moved east from the Golden Lions, where he represented them in last year's campaign.
Cloete is injured at the moment though and was not considered for selection.
Janse van Rensburg said that his team has learnt lessons from their performances against the Golden Lions in the National Provincial Challenge. The Pumas came out on the losing side of two hotly-contested matches in the group stage before going down 25-35 to the Xerox Golden Lions in the quarterfinals.
"We came up short against the Lions a few times, but we did more than enough to show that we could have got winning results. We have systems in place to contain them. Lessons were definitely learned and this week poses a big opportunity for us," said Janse van Rensburg.
The coach explained that the Pumas have been working on multiple options to effectively counter the Golden Lions fast style of play.
"We've worked through all of these options and the players have been put through their paces. We just have to execute our systems really well and every player has to ensure his individual prep this week is executed on the field. If we can do that, I think we're in with a good chance," Janse van Rensburg said.
The visitors will have some challenges to overcome early in the competition, as a number of the players expected to play in the Currie Cup are still busy with Super Rugby commitments.
The performances of the Golden Lions team that played in the National Provincial Challenge will be of comfort though, as they have beaten the Pumas three times in that campaign.
The Johannesburgers will become tougher to beat as their big-name players' return, but have the depth and talent to stay unbeaten till then.
Springboks, BiltzBoks and former Sharks player Ryan Kankowski will captain the side with highly influential lock Marvin Orie to add experience to the pack.
2016: Lions won 68-26, Johannesburg
2015: Lions won 41-11, Nelspruit
2015: Lions won 44-27, Johannesburg
2014: Lions won 29-15, Johannesburg
Prediction: The Golden Lions have developed a strong winning culture over the last few seasons and we cannot see them losing in Nelspruit. The Lions will win this one by 10 points or less.
Pumas: 15 Gerrit Smith, 14 Jerome Pretorius, 13 Hennie Skorbinski (captain), 12 Ryan Nell, 11 Ruwellyn Isbell, 10 Justin van Staden, 9 Stefan Ungerer, 8 Carel Greeff, 7 Nardus van der Walt, 6 Francois Kleinhans, 5 Hugo Kloppers (captain), 4 Jeremy Jordaan, 3 Pieter Scholtz, 2 Mark Pretorius, 1 Mona Kwezi.
Replacements: 16 Frank Herne, 17 DJ Terblanche, 18 Marne Coetzee, 19 Jannie Stander, 20 Lambert Groenewald, 21 Reynier van Rooyen, 22 Sias Ebersohn.
Golden Lions: 15 Ashlon Davids, 14 Madosh Tambwe, 13 Stokkies Hanekom, 12 Jarryd Sage, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Shaun Reynolds, 9 Marco Jansen van Vuren, 8 Ryan Kankowski (captain), 7 Jano Venter, 6 James Venter, 5 Rhyno Herbst, 4 Marvin Orie, 3 Andrew Beerwinkel, 2 Pieter Jansen, 1 Sithembiso Sithole.
Replacements: 16 Mike Willemse, 17 Nico du Plessis, 18 Bobby de Wee, 19 Hacjivah Dayimani, 20 Fabian Booysen, 21 Bradley Thain, 22 Jan-Louis la Grange.
Referee: Stuart Berry
Assistant referees: Ricus van der Hoven & Marnus Meiring
TMO: Willie Vos