JON CARDINELLI looks at the key match-ups that will shape the outcome of the Currie Cup final at Newlands this Saturday.
WILCO LOUW vs JUAN SCHOEMAN
Western Province destroyed the Sharks at the scrum in last year’s final. On that occasion, JC Janse van Rensburg, Bongi Mbonambi and Wilco Louw outmuscled and outwitted their Sharks counterparts, and ultimately set the platform for Province to dictate the flow of the game.
Will the Sharks heavies have their revenge in this year’s decider? They scrummed well against the Golden Lions in their semi-final, and Thomas du Toit continues to grow as a tighthead.
WP hammered the Blue Bulls at the scrum on a wet night at Loftus Versfeld two weeks ago. They were on top at this set piece for much of the semi-final. Louw put opposite number Trevor Nyakane under a lot of pressure during that period.
Province lost their shape, however, at the business end of the match. The sight of makeshift scrumhalf Sergeal Petersen scrambling for the ball as the scrum stumbled backwards will have the Sharks front-rankers licking their lips.
WP can be troubled in this area. It will be interesting to see if the Sharks go after a tiring Province pack in the second half of this week’s final.
JEAN-LUC DU PREEZ vs SIKHUMBUZO NOTSHE
According to WP coach John Dobson, the Sharks will provide Province with a sterner test at the gainline this week than the Bulls did in the semi-final. That is some statement, considering that Province were put under immense pressure by the Bulls rush defence and largely outmuscled at the point of contact.
It remains to be seen who Dobson, and opposite number Robert du Preez, will select in the back row for the final. No 8 Juarno Augustus was one of the standouts in the semi-final at Newlands, and perhaps Sikhumbuzo Notshe – who may return from injury – will be deployed at No 7.
The Du Preez twins will surely start in a game of this nature and importance. Dan has been in powerful form of late, while Jean-Luc could mark his return to the starting side with an influential gainline and breakdown showing.
Perhaps Dobson will toy with the idea of picking a side for a high-tempo approach. Perhaps he will look to run those big Sharks forwards around the park in the early stages, and then strike when the visitors have grown weary later in the game.
That ploy may not yield the desired reward, though. The Sharks have some dangerous backs with the ability to turn opposition mistakes into points at the other end of the field.
WP have to win the gainline battle to have any chance of stalling the physical Sharks pack. They may well have to fight fire with fire.
DAMIAN WILLEMSE vs ROB DU PREEZ
Willemse and Du Preez were teammates at WP at this time last year. A lot has transpired over the past 12 months, though, with Willemse taking charge as the premier Stormers and WP pivot – not to mention making his Test debut – and Du Preez making the Sharks No 10 jersey his own.
Bulls coach Pote Human commended his charges for keeping Willemse quiet in the recent semi-final at Newlands. With the WP forwards struggling at the breakdowns and the Bulls defenders rushing up, Willemse had no room to work his attacking magic.
Province could well penetrate the Sharks defence if Willemse receives front-foot ball this Saturday. Territory, however, will be all-important on this occasion. The hosts will need to be more accurate with their probes and up-and-unders than they were in the recent clash with the Bulls.
Du Preez will have a key role to play as the Sharks’ chief decision-maker and goal-kicker. It wouldn’t surprise to see the flyhalf as well as the Sharks’ abrasive midfielders taking on the WP defence during the early stages.
Du Preez missed several attempts on goal in last year’s final, and was fortunate that his opponents were just as wayward. With SP Marais in terrific goal-kicking form this season – the WP winger converted eight out of nine attempts in the semi-final – Du Preez will be under pressure to find his radar from the outset on Saturday.
DILLYN LEYDS vs CURWIN BOSCH
Dobson lamented his team’s tactical-kicking performance in the wake of the narrow win over the Bulls. All of the relevant players will have important roles to play when they come up against a Sharks side stacked with strong exponents of the territorial approach.
Curwin Bosch is a fine attacking player and has shown that he can influence a contest with his powerful kicking boot. It will be interesting to see how the WP back three respond to an aerial onslaught, especially if the Sharks’ kick-chase is accurate. Dillyn Leyds can be a threat on the counter-attack, but will need to show more in terms of his aerial and kick-return abilities this Saturday.
S’bu Nkosi has looked good for the Sharks since returning from injury. The prospect of winning his first Currie Cup title and reclaiming the Bok No 14 jersey may inspire an influential showing by the winger at Newlands.
JOHN DOBSON vs ROBERT DU PREEZ SNR
The hosts will be expected to win. That said, Robert du Preez is under pressure to produce results of consequence following an uninspiring Super Rugby campaign as well as rumours of discontent in the Sharks camp.
It’s fair to say there is a lot riding on this clash for both coaches.
Keep an eye out for how the respective mentors manage their teams in the dying stages. WP weren’t especially clinical in the second half of the semi-final against the Bulls, while the Sharks let the Lions back into the contest after dominating the first stanza.
The tactical decisions made by the coaches, or more specifically the management of the bench, could well influence the outcome of Saturday’s decider. It’s been a long season, and Province may be the wearier of the two teams following a taxing extra-time battle with the Bulls. Dobson will need to take this into account at the business end of the championship game.