THE strength versus strength Currie Cup format continued to deliver unpredictable results this past weekend, as Western Province and Griquas bounced back from their slow starts to leave the competition wide open as the halfway mark approaches.
In a thrilling round of matches, Griquas toppled the Lions 42-32 in Johannesburg for their first victory of the season, while Western Province delivered a fine performance to thrash the Blue Bulls 42-6 at Newlands.
The Sharks, meanwhile, staged a fantastic comeback from 21-6 down at the break to pip the Cheetahs 34-32 in Durban in the dying minutes for a bonus-point victory.
This mixed bag of results allowed the Sharks to top the log table, while Western Province hopped from fifth place on the log to second and the victory for Griquas kept them in the running for a semifinal berth later in the season, despite trailing the fourth-placed side by four points.
In Johannesburg, poor defence and lineout problems for the Lions in the first half, combined with several turnovers at the breakdowns, resulted in Griquas running in three tries before the break and forcing the defending champions onto the back foot.
Griquas backed up their encouraging first-half showing with their bonus-point try shortly after the break to extend their lead.
The Lions, however, bounced back strongly in the third quarter thanks to two tries in two minutes by left wing Anthony Volmink, which earned the team a bonus point for four tries and put them within range of winning the match. But their defence let them down once again with three minutes to go as Griquas centre Jean Stemmet crossed the try line for their fifth try.
While Griquas coach Pote Human was delighted with their victory, Lions prop and captain JC Janse van Rensburg was bitterly disappointed with his team’s performance.
"Our scrums were good, but it doesn’t mean anything if you defend the way we did," he said. "Our attitude wasn’t right and we missed too many one-on-one tackles … at some stages we didn’t commit enough players to the rucks and at other times we had too many players there. It was a disappointing performance."
In Cape Town, Western Province did well to retain possession, which forced the Bulls to defend for long periods, and they rounded off their try-scoring chances for a total of five tries.
The Bulls, however, were their own worst enemy as ill discipline at the breakdowns and their poor kicking game denied them momentum and possession.
Of their victory, Western Province coach Allister Coetzee said: "The guys executed the plan well and took their opportunities. I’m really proud of the players. That was a quality Bulls side, but the guys applied themselves well.
"Next week will be tough against the Cheetahs, but for now we’re happy we improved the things we worked on during the week — the breakdown, our penalty count and taking opportunities."
Unfortunately for Coetzee, star scrumhalf Dewaldt Duvenage broke his leg early in the clash, which will sideline him for the rest of the season.
In the Sharks camp, meanwhile, coach John Plumtree praised his team for their fighting spirit to snatch a bonus-point victory with four minutes to go against the Cheetahs and said the decision to change their game plan midway through the match was instrumental in the win.
"The boys knew we could do it (at half-time), we just needed a couple of tries and we were back in the game," Plumtree said.
"The Cheetahs were pretty good defensively and prevented us from going wide early, so we had to show a little more patience. But when we attacked up the middle of the field we got some good gains … there was a lot of comeback rugby in the second half and I am proud that the boys managed to do that."