With no Rugby Championship action this weekend, all eyes will be on the Currie Cup as the oldest provincial rugby competition in the world enters Round Four.
Although the competition is devoid of South Africa’s elite players, there has been no shortage of surprise results and compelling action.
With the competition kicking off with Griquas shocking the Sharks in Durban, one has come to expect the unexpected.
Another interesting early trend in the 2013 campaign is the high number of away victories, with five of the nine matches being won by visiting teams.
With that in mind, it promises to be another unpredictable weekend of Currie Cup action that will get underway in Johannesburg, where the Golden Lions host Western Province on Friday night.
From there it’s off to Bloemfontein for the derby between the Free State Cheetahs and Griquas on Saturday afternoon before the action wraps up in Durban, where the Sharks battle the Blue Bulls.
Quintin van Jaarsveld looks at all the Round Four action!
Friday, August 30:
Golden Lions v Western Province
(Ellis Park, Johannesburg - Kick-off: 19:10; 17:10 GMT)
Western Province will have to be at the top of their game if they are to leave Ellis Park with their unbeaten record intact.
The defending champions are the only undefeated side after three rounds and consequently sit atop the standings, one point ahead of coastal rivals the Sharks.
Their solid early season run could come to a screeching halt on Friday, though, as they take on a Golden Lions side coming off one of their most memorable ever Currie Cup victories over the Blue Bulls.
The 62-23 annihilation - at fortress Loftus - was as awe-inspiring as it was surprising given that the Lions headed into the trans-Jukskei derby as the competition’s only winless side.
They made an emphatic statement last weekend to move up to fourth place and will be eager to continue their climb up the ladder as they return to their hunting ground following two matches on the road.
Province are yet to show the form that took them to the title last year but crucially, have managed to secure back-to-back one-point wins over the past fortnight.
Champion teams share that intangible quality to remain unbeaten despite being stuck in first gear. In the Lions, however, they face their greatest attacking threat of the season.
They played the equally dangerous Cheetahs in Round Two, but the typically wet Cape Town weather diluted the Bloemfontein side’s potency with ball in hand.
Province have stuck with the Stormers’ defence-based approach and while it’s not the most entertaining brand of rugby, it has served them well, as they have conceded the least amount of points (57) after three rounds.
Their proficiency in this regard and the Lions’ flair on attack makes this clash between the best attacking and defensive teams in the competition a can’t miss match-up.
Given the teams’ contrasting strengths, discipline and set-piece ascendency could prove decisive. Province conceded an obscene amount of penalties last weekend which will not go unpunished by in-form Marnitz Boshoff or Springbok flyhalf Elton Jantjies, who will be back in the No.10 jersey on Friday.
The Cape side also spoke of their frustration over the new scrum sequence earlier in the week, so the scrums - and referee Jaco Peyper’s interpretation of the new sequence - will come under scrutiny.
The key clash in this regard will be between opposing Springboks CJ van der Linde and Pat Cilliers.
2012: Western Province won 21-16, Johannesburg (semifinal)
2012: Golden Lions won 22-9, Cape Town
2012: Golden Lions won 26-23, Johannesburg
2011: Golden Lions won 29-20, Johannesburg (semifinal)
2011: Golden Lions won 42-25, Johannesburg
2011: Western Province won 28-26, Cape Town
2010: Golden Lions won 46-28, Johannesburg
2010: Western Province won 32-0, Cape Town
Prediction: The Lions will have their tails up after the Loftus massacre but will have to prove it wasn’t a flash in the pan. Patience and continuity on attack could see them systematically soften up the visitors and yield penalties if nothing else. Province have been undercooked and after what transpired last weekend, it’s tempting to go with the Lions - the bookies favourites - at home. However, Province have consistency on their side and therefore should eke out another close away win. Western Province by three.
Golden Lions: 15 Marnitz Boshoff, 14 Deon Helberg, 13 Robert De Bruyn, 12 Dylan Des Fountain, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Guy Cronje, 8 Lambert Groenewald, 7 Derick Minnie (captain), 6 Warwick Tecklenburg, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Willie Britz, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Willie Wepener, 1 CJ van der Linde.
Replacements: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Hugo Kloppers, 19 JJ Breet, 20 Jaco Kriel, 21 Tian Meyer, 22 Andries Coetzee.
Western Province: 15 Gio Aplon, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Cheslin Kolbe, 10 Kurt Coleman, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Rynhardt Elstadt, 6 Deon Fourie (captain), 5 De Kock Steenkamp, 4 Michael Rhodes, 3 Pat Cilliers, 2 Tiaan Liebenberg, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Scarra Ntubeni, 17 Brok Harris, 18 Gerbrandt Grobler, 19 Rohan Kitshoff, 20 Louis Schreuder, 21 Tim Swiel, 22 Michael van der Spuy.
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant referees: Jaco van Heerden, Sieg van Staden
TMO: Willie Roos
Saturday, August 31:
Free State Cheetahs v Griquas
(Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein - Kick-off: 15.00; 13.00 GMT)
The Free State Cheetahs will be desperate to get their campaign back on track in this match against neighbours Griquas.
And they are poised to achieve just that as Griquas will be limping into Bloemfontein. Injuries suffered in the 19-20 home loss to Western Province last weekend and an attack on Jonathan Adendorf that saw the lock stabbed four times and lucky to escape with his life have left Griquas a disrupted and understrength outfit.
This unfortunate turn of events left Griquas coach Pote Human with a lock crisis on his hands with Adendorf and Jaco Nepgen joining Rynhardt Landman on the sidelines, forcing Human to name a makeshift second row combination of Springbok Hilton Lobberts and Australian rookie Rory Arnold as well as pluck Patrick O'Brien out of the club ranks to provide cover on the bench.
The hosts, in contrast, boast the promising pair of Teboho Mohoje and Lodewyk de Jager to lock the scrum with a returning Waltie Vermeulen on the pine, which should give them a considerable edge in the line-out.
They are bound to benefit from their continuity and after suffering two losses in a row - including a disappointing 15-18 defeat to the Sharks in their first home game of the season last Friday - they will be fully focused and complacency free come Saturday.
This should be a free-flowing, entertaining spectacle with the Cheetahs’ lethal backline set to test the quality of Griquas’ defence.
2012: Free State Cheetahs won 35-20, Bloemfontein
2012: Free State Cheetahs won 29-16, Kimberley
2011: Free State Cheetahs won 49-39, Bloemfontein
2011: Griquas won 23-20, Kimberley
2010: Free State Cheetahs won 33-28, Kimberley
2010: Free State Cheetahs won 33-26, Bloemfontein
Prediction: This is a match for the Cheetahs to lose rather than the depleted Griquas to win. There will be the usual fighting spirit and guts of Griquas, but the hosts will win rather comfortably. Free State Cheetahs by 14.
Free State Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Riaan Smit, 13 Johann Sadie, 12 Robert Ebersohn, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Elgar Watts, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Boom Prinsloo (captain), 5 Lodewyk de Jager, 4 Teboho Mohoje, 3 Rossouw de Klerk, 2 Hercu Liebenberg, 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Replacements: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Wian du Preez, 18 Waltie Vermeulen, 19 Davon Raubenheimer, 20 Kevin Luiters, 21 Willie du Plessis, 22 Piet Lindeque.
Griquas: 15 PJ Vermeulen, 14 Nico Scheepers, 13 JP Nel, 12 Howard Mnisi, 11 Rocco Jansen, 10 Francois Brummer, 9 Marnus Hugo, 8 Leon Karemaker, 7 Burger Schoeman, 6 Carel Greeff, 5 Rory Arnold, 4 Hilton Lobberts, 3 Nick Schonert, 2 Ryno Barnes (captain), 1 Steph Roberts.
Replacements: 16 Matt Dobson, 17 Brummer Badenhorst, 18 Patrick O'Brien, 19 Marnus Schoeman, 20 Jacques Coetzee, 21 Du Randt Gerber, 22 Richard Lawson.
Referee: Craig Joubert
Assistant referees: Rasta Rasivhenge, Francois de Bruin
TMO: Gerrie Coetzee
Sharks v Blue Bulls
(Kings Park, Durban - kick-off: 17.05; 15.05 GMT)
How will the inexperienced Blue Bulls respond after their humiliating 23-62 home loss to the Golden Lions last weekend?
That’s the question this clash is built on.
It was one of the worst beatings the Blue Bulls have been dealt in Currie Cup history. Introspection certainly dominated their preparation for the Durban derby as they look to conjure up a retort that would lift them from the foot of the table.
As baffling a statement it may seem considering the lopsided scoreline, the rookie Bulls do have a positive to take out of the Lions game in that they led 23-20 after 48 minutes before Morné Mellett’s sin-binning brought forth the rout.
It’s their discipline that let them down at Loftus, more so than their leaky defence, and would have been their main focus this week.
How they go at Kings Park will not only reveal the character of the side but more importantly, whether they will be locked in a semifinal hunt or a relegation battle for the remainder of the season.
The injury to Tony Jantjies will see Handré Pollard make his Currie Cup debut at flyhalf in what could be a blessing in disguise as the Bulls have lacked direction. The IRB Junior World Championship-winning Baby Bok playmaker has proven temperament and tactical ability, as well as size and a willingness to attack the gainline.
Squaring off against fellow Curie Cup rookie Fred Zeilinga, who will be making just his second start, will put Pollard at greater ease as opposing World Cup-winning Springbok veteran Butch James would have, but he is set for a baptism of fire nevertheless.
Painting Pollard as the sole saviour of the battling Bulls would be incorrect, inaccurate and fallacious and any such expectations equally unreasonable. The Bulls will, however, be a different animal with Pollard at pivot.
The start of the Currie Cup season saw the Sharks enter a new era with an all-new coaching set-up, which has brought with it new ideas and structures. They, too, have been left bare without their Springboks but not merely to the degree of their greenhorn visitors from Pretoria.
They still boast plenty of invaluable experience in the likes of captain Jacques Botes, Springbok flanks Jean Deysel and Keegan Daniel, Louis Ludik and internationals Odwa Ndungane, Marco Wentzel, James and Charl McLeod, who’s set to win his 50th Currie Cup cap off the bench.
That enviable experience and the balance it gives the Sharks make the Durban side decided favourites to win this weekend and a solid bet to reach the Final for the fourth consecutive year.
After their last-minute loss to Griquas at home in their season opener, the Sharks have secured back-to-back wins, which see them sitting in second place, and they are eager to continue improving and building momentum.
“We are obviously very happy with the two wins over the last couple of weeks," said Sharks forwards coach Brad Macleod-Henderson.
"We are growing and developing as a team. Every week we are getting better and better. We have a really good mix of talented players, a couple who are older and some young guys which is great. We have a nice mix of experience and youth.”
He added: “We’re not focussing on the log, just on our performances. If we get that right the results take care of themselves.
“This is obviously a big game and with the Bulls having slipped up they will want to right that result. We have some momentum and we want to continue with that.”
2012: Sharks won 20-3, Durban (semifinal)
2012: Sharks won 13-12, Durban
2012: Blue Bulls won 42-31, Pretoria
2011: Sharks won 39-27, Pretoria
2011: Sharks won 35-16, Durban
2010: Sharks won 16-12, Durban (semifinal)
2010: Blue Bulls won 40-34, Pretoria
2010: Sharks won 34-28, Durban
Prediction: Experience trumps youth nine times out of 10 and that in a large degree is what this match boils down to. The Sharks also have momentum and home ground advantage on their side, so we can’t see the Bulls winning this one. That said, the visitors are a proud bunch and will be seeking redemption, so it’s bound to be a competitive match. Sharks by 10.
Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Louis Ludik, 12 Heimar Williams, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Jacques Botes (captain), 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Marco Wentzel, 4 Peet Marais, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Craig Burden, 1 Dale Chadwick.
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Rayno Gerber, 18 Edwin Hewitt, 19 Justin Downey, 20 Charl McLeod, 21 Butch James, 22 Jaco van Tonder.
Blue Bulls: 15 Jürgen Visser, 14 Sampie Mastriet, 13 Waylon Murray, 12 Ulrich Beyers, 11 Akona Ndungane, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Ruan Snyman, 8 Jono Ross (captain), 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Wiaan Liebenberg, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 Paul Willemse, 3 Frik Kirsten, 2 Mbongeni Mbonambi, 1 Morné Mellett.
Replacements: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Werner Kruger, 18 David Bullbring, 19 Jacques Engelbrecht, 20 Rudy Paige, 21 Tiaan Schoeman, 22 Clayton Blommetjies.
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan
Assistant referees: Quinton Immelman, Reuben Rossouw
TMO: Shaun Veldsman