THE top six provincial teams in South Africa will be determined to hit the ground running this weekend in their opening Absa Currie Cup premier division clashes as the strength-versus-strength format tests the teams from week one.
There was a consensus among the coaches this week that, with only 10 rounds of pool matches and no byes, the teams had to deliver quality performances from the outset to put themselves in contention for semifinal spots.
Adding spice to the competition, the Blue Bulls, Sharks and Western Province will be without their Springbok players, which is expected to level the playing field in the tournament.
The Blue Bulls meet Griquas on Friday night at Loftus Versfeld, while the Lions host the Cheetahs in Johannesburg and Western Province take on the Sharks at Newlands on Saturday.
Despite losing several Springboks to national duty, Blue Bulls coach Pine Pienaar named a strong team for the clash, with Boks wing Akona Ndungane, No8 Dewald Potgieter, flank Deon Stegmann and prop Werner Kruger featuring in a quality leadership group.
Griquas, however, will take comfort from the fact that a few of their players played Super Rugby for the Cheetahs, and will draw confidence from their impressive Vodacom Cup season, which ended with a 20-18 defeat against Western Province in May.
Pienaar and Blue Bulls skipper Potgieter expected a physical onslaught in the clash, but they refused to be intimidated by the settled Griquas side and said they also had a point to prove.
"Griquas are a physical team and they thrive on playing direct rugby, so it will be a challenging encounter," Pienaar said. "Given this approach, it will important for us to hit the rucks (to gain ascendancy) … we are also looking forward to Werner (Kruger), Grant (Hattingh — former Lions flank) and CJ (Stander) lifting the tempo of the game off the bench in the second half."
In the Lions camp, coach Johan Ackermann hoped the continuity in selection from the Super Rugby series into the Currie Cup — with only prop Pat Cilliers and flyhalf Elton Jantjies called up to the Bok squad — would give his side an edge as they attempt to defend their title this season.
But Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske also named a quality squad, featuring star Super Rugby halfbacks Riaan Smit and Piet van Zyl and the choice centre pairing of Andries Strauss and Robert Ebersohn, which should set the scene for an entertaining clash.
The Lions skipper, prop JC Janse van Rensburg, spoke highly of the Cheetahs ahead of the clash. "They are a good team and if they turn up (in top form) they can destroy the opposition," he said. "So we need to step up as a unit and deliver a quality performance."
While he was open about his hopes of the Lions successfully defending their Currie Cup title, he said it would take a determined effort throughout the season.
The Western Province and the Sharks coaches also named strong teams for their clash at Newlands, with most of their players having featured in Super Rugby.
While both teams boast good front rows and back lines, locks Jandré Marais and Steven Sykes and the loose trio of Jacques Botes, Jean Deysel and Tera Mtembu could give the Sharks an edge over Province.
With rain and strong winds expected in Cape Town on Saturday, Province forwards coach Matthew Proudfoot expected a big forward battle and said the clash would be a good character test for the second-tier players in both camps.
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