The Sharks and Bulls have really been the “big two” of South African rugby for several years – and it is just beginning to look as if the status quo will not be disturbed in 2009.
Rob Houwing writes on News 24 that the outcomes of the enthralling final series of Absa Currie Cup round-robin matches will probably have most canny punters now envisaging a carbon copy of last year’s showpiece: the Sharks against the Bulls in Durban.
On that occasion, of course, the home side prevailed 14-9 to lift the trophy for the first time since 1996, although the Bulls roared back a few months later to claim their second Vodacom Super 14 title in three years.
So these are the two South African franchises with the most to brag about at present and things could well stay that way, even if there remains a fair enough threat that the cat could be set among the pigeons in next week’s semi-finals.
Saturday’s results, in which the Sharks jumped back to top spot with exquisite timing in Kimberley — simultaneously wrecking the Griquas fairytale — and a grimly motivated Lions outfit upset prior leaders Western Province to nudge them into second, set up a meeting between
the Currie Cup holders and the Cheetahs at Absa Stadium, and Province against old foes the Bulls at Newlands.
There will be an especially good chance of no empty seats at the latter, as Luke Watson’s side arguably remain the likeliest hope of the recent Sharks/Bulls dominance of the South African landscape being broken.
Their assignment at Coca-Coca Park, to not only beat the Lions but also do it with a bonus point, was always going to be hazardous, especially as a home semi was already safe for them and that may have unintentionally impacted on their levels of urgency.
So Province, the pesky possible intruders to the lofty domain of the juggernaut duo, will now have to go a tougher route if they wish to claim the coveted prize for the first time since 2001.
Beating a full-strength Bulls next week is a tall order, despite WP’s revitalisation as a domestic force this winter and even the fact that they will have home-ground advantage.
They will certainly make a fist of it, egged on by a particularly partisan crowd, and should they somehow topple the senior Springbok-laden Bulls, there is a strong chance that they would then have to travel to the Shark Tank, and encounter another raft of hardened, Tri-Nations-winning internationals in their quest to make the dream come true.
Mind you, that is assuming that Stefan Terblanche and company do the KO business to the Cheetahs, who can never be discounted and may view their late, late qualification for the last four as a wonderful passport not to be surrendered easily – they will happily take the mantle of cheeky underdogs.
Something that will be worrying the Sharks is a mounting injury toll among forwards who provide most of their true “grunt”: Beast Mtawarira and Bismarck du Plessis were among those not to see out the encounter with Griquas on their rock-hard paddock, and if you throw in some lingering concerns around John Smit, Johann Muller and Jean Deysel, that is a lot of brawn to surrender if the worst comes to the worst for them personnel-wise over the next two or three weeks.
Similarly, Province were not exactly smashed to smithereens by the admirably earthy Lions pack in the Johannesburg reverse, but they also didn’t have matters all their own way and some of their supporters will again be quietly rueing the departure of Chris Jack, the All Black lock who did so much to awaken their eight in the earlier stages of the Currie Cup.
Will they have enough gas left in the tank after a Highveld lung-burner to be able to go toe to toe with Bakkies Botha, Pierre Spies and the other woolly mammoths this Saturday?
Still, a fascinating showdown is in store, especially as emerging WP customers like Joe Pietersen, Juan de Jongh and Francois Louw generally did their credentials no harm, even in defeat to the hyped-up Lions.
But my money, even if it’s rather jumping the gun, is on Sharks v Bulls II on October 31 …Tweet