Currie Cup semi-final scramble reaches fever pitch
Cape Town - The scramble for play-off spots and the remaining home semi-final will reach fever pitch this weekend as the pool stages of the Currie Cup comes to a dramatic conclusion in the presence of several returning Springboks.
Defending champions, Western Province, are guaranteed of a home semi-final, while the Sharks are certain of a semi-final berth, but they both have a chance of securing the top spot on the log.
The Blue Bulls, Golden Lions and Pumas, meanwhile, will battle it out for the remaining two semi-final spots in the competition.
The action kicks off in Nelspruit on Friday where the Pumas host the Golden Lions in a thrilling match-up in which both sides will be desperate for a bonus-point victory.
A five-pointer for the Gautengers will keep them in a running for a possible home semi-final, while a defeat for the hosts will dash their hopes of reaching the top four.
History favours the Golden Lions, as they have only gone down once against the men from Mpumalanga since 2011, although that defeat was in Nelspruit.
The visitors have been in superior form on attack this season with 53 more points scored, however, the Pumas have been more effective on defence, which will spice things up.
Ryan Nell will captain the men from Mpumalanga in the absence of the injured Hugo Kloppers. Their team shows three changes from their last outing, with Francois Kleinhans taking over at No 8, Cameron Lindsay will start at lock and Marné Coetzee is the new tighthead prop.
The Golden Lions team, which will be led by Nic Groom, show five changes, with Springboks Elton Jantjies and Lionel Mapoe in action after the Rugby Championship, while the new-look front row features hooker Corné Fourie and prop Jacobie Adriaanse.
The action continues in Kimberley on Saturday as Griquas meet the Sharks in a match that the home team will play purely for pride after winning only one game this season.
The visitors, however, will be wary of the hosts, who apart from having nothing to lose, will be buoyed by the fact that they won three of their last seven matches against the Durbanites in Kimberley. They will also be inspired by the fact that they scored 12 more points than their opponents in their last five matches.
Griquas made three personnel changes, all among the forwards, with Ewald van der Westhuizen, Sintu Manjezi and Wendal Wehr earning starts.
Curwin Bosch will move to flyhalf, with Robert du Preez at inside centre for the Sharks. They also welcome back two Springboks to their starting team in Sbu Nkosi (wing) and Coenie Oosthuizen (prop), while Jean-Luc du Preez will make his return from injury off the bench.
Furthermore, Akker van der Merwe will start at hooker with regular skipper Chiliboy Ralepelle on the bench. Louis Schreuder will captain the Durbanites in Kimberley.
The Blue Bulls and Western Province will meet in the grand finale to the pool stages at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, where the Capetonians may need only one or two log points to take the top spot on the log.
Fortunately for both teams, they will know exactly what they have to do to finish in the top four by the time the match kicks off.
With Western Province boasting the best attacking form in the competition, the home side will face a tough test on defence, in particular, but they will draw inspiration from the fact that they have won two of their last three matches against their Cape rivals at Loftus Versfeld, while the defeat was by only one point.
Four Springboks, Trevor Nyakane, Marco van Staden, Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier, have been included in the Blue Bulls' match day squad. Papier, who was named on the bench, will make his Currie Cup debut in this highly anticipated clash against the log leaders and defending champions.
Springbok tighthead prop Wilco Louw will play his 50th match for Western Province as one of four players who have returned from national duty. The others are Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Damian Willemse and Ruhan Nel.
There are two more changes to the WP backline, with Herschel Jantjies (scrumhalf) and Dan du Plessis (inside centre) both included to start.
Currie Cup Premier Division Round 8 fixtures:
Pumas vs Golden Lions - 19:00
Griquas vs Sharks - 15:00
Blue Bulls vs Western Province - 17:15