The two Feline teams in the Currie Cup have had differing fortunes this week, with one losing a player to injury and one gaining the availability of a Springbok.
Jan De Koning writes for Rugby 365 that having moved up to third place on the standings and a possible home semifinal in their sights, the Lions received a further boost on Monday with the news that World Cup-winning Springbok Jaque Fourie will make his comeback in their Round 12 Currie Cup encounter with the Boland Cavaliers in Wellington on Saturday.
Lions coach Eugene Eloff, buoyed by the news that there were no injuries from the 41-20 win over Griquas at the weekend, confirmed that the Bok veteran will be on the bench for the trip to Wellington.
“”Jaque [Fourie] will start from the bench,” Eloff told rugby365.com, adding that his team is looking to cement their top four position with another sound performance against Boland.
Fourie missed the Lions’ Super 14 campaign through an elbow injury and shortly after his return to the Currie Cup he injured a groin muscle.
The 40-times capped Springbok midfielder made his international comeback against Argentina in Johannesburg on August 9, midway through the Tri-Nations campaign, but fractured a cheekbone in a collision with Puma rival Nunez Piossek.
It was expected he would be sidelined for at least six weeks, but a quicker than expected recovery will see him back this week – as well as the crunch matches against the Sharks (in Johannesburg) on September 27 and Western Province (in Cape Town) a week later.
The Lions reinforced their push towards the Currie Cup semifinals with that comprehensive victory over the Griquas at the weekend – ensuring they not only stay nine points clear of an ever-improving WP, but also overtook a faltering Cheetahs side on the standings.
It also means last year’s losing finalists, the Lions, stay in the hunt for a home semifinal.
Meanwhile Phil Coetzer writes for Rugby 365 that the Free State Cheetahs could see their dreams of a fourth consecutive Currie Cup title unravel before their eyes after picking up another key injury in the 10-22 loss to the Sharks in Durban on Saturday.
It has been confirmed that scrumhalf Neil Powell suffered a broken arm on Saturday, which rules him out for the rest of the season.
The news will be a bitter blow for the Cheetahs, who are suddenly struggling to get their first-choice backline players onto the playing field.
Robert Ebersohn also left the field on Saturday with an injured knee, but Cheetahs assistant coach Helgard Müller told rugby365.com that the youngster has escaped serious injury, and should be available for the crunch clash against the Blue Bulls this coming weekend.
“Robert seems to be fine at the moment,” Müller told Rugby 365.
“We’re hoping there aren’t any more serious problems this week,” he added, referring to his team’s preparations for the Bloemfontein showdown against the Blue Bulls.
That match could become pivotal for the Cheetahs, who have seen their Currie Cup fortunes recede drastically in recent weeks after a great start to the tournament.
The Cheetahs are now in danger of losing three matches on the trot, and are hovering on the cusp of semifinal contention in fourth place on the points table.
That represents an alarming drop in form for the Bloemfontein outfit, who were sitting pretty on top of the Currie Cup standings only three weeks ago following a 38-28 victory over the Lions in Johannesburg.
“It is true that we’re facing probably our most important match of the season on Saturday,” Muller said.
“If we want to get anywhere in the tournament, we have to win the next three games. That begins on Saturday [against the Bulls], and the two matches after that [against Falcons and Boland] are just as important.
“But because we have the home advantage this weekend, and the tournament is reaching such a critical stage, we’ll have to focus fully on Saturday and put everything we have into that.”
The Cheetahs’ drought has coincided with a particularly tough patch of fixtures in their schedule. By the end of Round 12, they will have faced all their opponents from the ‘big five’ unions – the Lions, WP, Sharks and the Blue Bulls – in consecutive matches.
“Once again we’re playing against a very good team in the Bulls, who are certainly on a roll at the moment,” said Müller, before stressing how important it is for his players to find their ‘big match temperament’.
“In that type of match, everything depends on how you perform on the day. You have to get your facets right, and you need to have great execution.
“The game against Western Province was similar. We thought that we were doing fairly well there, but suddenly one or two things go awry and you find yourself chasing the game.
“I think all the teams would have encountered [a difficult patch of fixtures] at some stage. But a lot of water must still pass under the bridge before the semifinal teams are determined.”
The injury to scrumhalf Powell means that the Cheetahs will now have to reshuffle their backline for the Bulls game.
Tewis de Bruyn will in all likelyhood revert back to scrumhalf, after a stint at flyhalf against the Sharks. This will open the door for Chris Rossouw to step back into the flyhalf berth after injury. Jacques-Louis Potgieter is also an option at pivot.
In the midfield, the Cheetahs faithful will be hoping that Robert Ebersohn shakes off his knee trouble to take his centre spot next to Meyer Bosman once again, but even more eyes will be on the progress of Springbok wing Jongi Nokwe in his recovery from an ankle injury, sustained against Australia in the Tri-Nations.
Coach Naka Drotské was forced into experimenting with Kabamba Floors at left wing last Saturday, after Fabian Juries and Wilton Pietersen picked up injury trouble the week before against Western Province.
“We’ve suddenly run out of wings at this stage. That’s one position where players usually don’t get injured very often, but suddenly it has become a problem for us,” said Müller.
“We’re trying every option we can think of at this stage, and I’m sure [head coach] Naka [Drotské] will come up with something.”
The race for the Currie Cup semifinal spots is now truly on, with a resurgent Western Province putting in an impressive late bid to break into the top four after a dismal opening phase left them in fifth place on the log.
And with the Lions overtaking the Cheetahs in third place after their win over Griquas, the focus now centres on whether WP can catch the Free Staters this coming weekend.
However, the Cheetahs can stay ahead of WP if they can collect a single point against the Bulls – a very possible scenario.
And if they do manage to keep their noses in front this coming weekend, the focus could well swing back to the Lions and Province.
The Gautengers are facing the most difficult run-in, and still have to face the Sharks and Province in the final two rounds.
Yet Müller knows all too well that his charges have no simple task ahead of them.
“Unfortunately for us, the Bulls usually play really well here in Bloemfontein,” he said wryly. “That will add even more to the competition in this match.
“But I’m sure we’ll be able to survive. We’ve been doing this for 105 years, so I’m certain we’ll get through this year.”Tweet