ABSA Currie Cup Preview: How Do the Eight Teams Look?
As the curtain closes on a grueling 20-week Super Rugby competition, rugby fans can barely catch their breath as a whole new feast of rugby awaits.
The ABSA Currie Cup, South Africa's Premier domestic rugby competition, dates back to 1889 and is steeped in rich heritage and tradition.
In the modern era of rugby, it has definitely taken a back-seat as the emergence of Super Rugby takes precedence. Many people are fearing for the future of this tournament, seeing it as a "feeder" or "development" for the subsequent Super Rugby campaign.
Needless to say, whilst that may be the case, the Currie Cup is still a trophy that is valued and respected in South Africa, and the teams will be going all-out to lift that trophy at the end of October.
With Springbok call-ups, injuries and fatigue plaguing the the top sides, it looks to be a fairly even contest across the board. This will effectively make many of the teams an unknown quantity.
So how does each team shape up for this year's competition?
Defending champions the Sharks will be without a whole host of players from their Super Rugby campaign.
The absence of Smit, Deysel, Hargreaves and Kankowski means they will have to rely on a relatively inexperienced forward pack to build a platform for their campaign.
Their bench also includes a number of newcomers and youngsters, and it will be important for the Sharks to incorporate these players into the team make-up as quickly as possible if they are to keep up a sustained challenge.
The biggest loss for them will undoubtedly be that of Patrick Lambie who marshaled them to victory in last year's final. They can be thankful to have an experienced international at pivot in Frederick Michalak.
Marius Joubert also joins up with the franchise and will be a boost at centre, an area that has been of some concern for them lately.
Key player: Frederick Michalak
A lot of the Sharks campaign this year will fall onto Michalak, and although he can be sublime to watch, at times he can flatter to deceive. He will have to marshal the backline and maintain consistent performances if the Sharks are to defend their title.
Beaten finalists last year, Western Province will be wanting to go one step further and win their first Currie Cup title in 10 years.
Like the Sharks, their challenge has been severely dented by various injuries and departures.
The absence of Aplon, Habana, Fourie, De Villiers and De Jongh effectively means they will be fielding an entirely "B" side backline.
WP have also lost experience up front with Francios Louw and Anton van Zyl both heading overseas, and a lot will depend on whether the youngsters called up can handle the pressure.
Despite the losses, Province will be confident in their structures, and will look to the success of their junior ranks to help fill the void.
Key player: Nic Koster
The absence of Duane Vermeleun in the opening rounds will be massive, and a lot will depend on Nic Koster providing go-forward ball. A hugely talented player, he will be want to prove his worth and cement a starting place in the Cape side's future.
The Blue Bulls are a team that will always be hit with Springbok call-ups, and this time is no different.
They will be without 16 players for the first round or so, but will be wanting to at least keep themselves in contention until a number of players are likely to return when the World Cup squad is named.
They have been hit hard in the forwards, and their forward pack will be tested throughout the competition.
The lock combination of Fudge Mabeta and Juandre Kruger will have to fill the void of Botha and Matfield, which will be no easy task.
Their are also some new additions to the backline, with a new fullback and scrumhalf in Jurgen Visser and Dustin Jinka respectively.
Key player: Francois Brummer
Just like the Sharks, Brummer will be under enormous pressure to calm his team and direct the backline. He has Currie Cup experience and shouldn't be too phased by the task.
Free State Cheetahs
The Cheetahs have developed a reputation in South African circles as being the team that is "bad" in Super Rugby, yet "good" in the Currie Cup.
One can point to many factors (namely that other bigger unions are affected by Springbok call-ups), but the Cheetahs showed in the latter stages of Super Rugby that they are a dangerous team.
Despite only a handful of Springbok call-ups (Oosthuizen, Brussouw and Johnson), the Cheetahs have lost a pivotal player from their Super Rugby campaign.
Sarel Pretorius returns to the Griquas, and his absence will clearly be felt by the Cheetahs as they will look to bring their Super Rugby form into the Currie Cup competition.
Key player: Sias Ebersohn
With a wealth of experience of Super Rugby under his belt, Ebersohn will be looking to continue his impressive form. He will be a key player if the Cheetahs wish to mount a serious challenge this season.
The Lions have been hit with only two Springbok call-ups (Jantjies and James), and will field a replica Super Rugby team. One would expect them to trounce all competition.
But this is unlikely to be the case.
Even though the Lions are the least "disrupted" team, there is something not right in the Johannesburg camp, and it is unlikely to just change overnight...regardless of what competition they're playing in.
That being said, expect them to still do relatively well. Their forwards should have the edge over most opposition as they will be more settled combination.
The Lions definitely have the potential to go far, but they will need to develop a "winning culture" from the first minute if they are to do it.
Key player: Doppies la Grange
La Grange has been the most impressive player in a struggling Lions side, and has has been entrusted with the captaincy. His experience and composure at inside centre will be important to help Burton Francis settle at flyhalf.
The Griquas are a much admired team in South Africa. Seen as the only real threat to the domination of the "Big Five," they can be regarded almost as supporters' "second team."
This could be a big year for the Griquas as other teams are even more weakened by injuries and national call-ups.
Every year they usually cause one or two upsets, but they will view this year as a golden opportunity to do even more and advance to the play-off stages. They are certainly capable of it.
Griquas are boosted by the return of Sarel Pretorius and have many other talented and experienced players, such as Fabien Juries and Riaan Viljoen, to call on.
Always tough on their home ground in Kimberley, it is the Griquas' away form that will prove vital if they are to actually make it. This could be the year they finally do it.
Key player: Sarel Pretorius
After an absolutely stellar Super Rugby campaign, Pretorius will want to make a statement to the Springbok selectors for his inexcusable snub by continuing to torment opposition defenders.
Unfortunately, the two remaining teams are there just to make up the numbers.
The Pumas will struggle this year, as they usually do. Occasionally they pull an upset, but it is very rare and don't expect them to seriously challenge any of the top six teams.
They may put up some fight on their home soil, but it will be a battle between them and the Leopards for bottom spot.
The Leopards are basically a team of amateurs. And in a sport between amateurs and professionals, the ending won't be pretty.
Leopards will most likely finish bottom of the table, and may pick up a win against the Pumas, but that will be all.
Expect them to get hammered every week.
Round One Predictions
It could take a few weeks for this competition to build up steam and for one to know exactly where each side stands, but despite that, it will definitely provide insight into the depth and structures of the respective unions.
The teams with the most depth and the ability to handle pressure situations will benefit the most.
Here are my predictions for the ABSA Currie Cup First Round matches:
Friday, July 15
Lions vs. Pumas, 7 p.m.
A north vs. north rivalry, the two sides will be looking to gain supremacy in the forward battle and cause as much damage as possible. Despite initial resistance by the Pumas, the Lions will have too much class and will walk out winners by about 20-25 points.
Saturday, July 16
Western Province vs. Griquas, 3 p.m.
Griquas will be looking to make a statement of intent at Newlands and will look to take advantage of the Cape side's losses. It will be close, but the Cape side will back their structures and home ground advantage to see them home by about 12 points.
Free State Cheetahs vs. Leopards, 3 p.m.
This game could be a complete whitewash. It will all depend on if the Cheetahs click. If they do, it could resemble more of a cricket score then a rugby score. Expect to see the Cheetahs walk out winners by about 30 points.
Sharks vs. Blue Bulls, 5 p.m.
The main game of the weekend, both teams will be wanting to hit the ground running with a victory. The Sharks probably have too much class and experience in the backs, and will win a close encounter by about seven points.